Reflections on the birthday ritual and autism.


(Dirt Cups 2014, my homage to Meret Oppenheim’s 1936. Fur-covered cup, saucer, and spoon)

It can be hard to strike the right birthday note. This post is about alternatives in the all pervasive social narrative of what makes for a happy birthday. While this dominance is unintentional, nonetheless it carries a potentially damaging myth about what can and should make you happy.

It’s my view that the happiness and mental well being of autistic people will be enhanced when our own versions of sociability and celebration are inserted and validated within mainstream culture. Without this we continue to be prone to false expectations, which can be harmful and destructive to an autistic sense of self. We are only made fragile through denial. A robust psyche (conversely) is created through authentication in the wider eye. Recognition and respect are fundamental to accepting and assimilating plurality of neurological existence, including autism as an alternative paradigm.

Birthdays can feel every bit as alienating as other major holidays for some autistic people.

As a society we must begin to take note that for some of our citizens birthdays can be a trigger for traumatic memory, an emotional minefield to be navigated with care. Birthdays can manifest as foci for isolation, on one hand, or social pressure and overload on the other. Over and over. Year on year.

This is because autistic people are so often excluded, not only from social invitation, but also (almost entirely) from the public imagination. A narrow concept of what autism is, and what autistic people can bring to the broader neurological table of humanity, is to blame. Clearly we have a long way to go, but we also need to start somewhere. We need to chip away at misconception on all social and cultural fronts, including attention to our rituals. I believe it is our rituals that make us.

We could be so very much more imaginative (pluralistic) and kinder as a culture in both our understanding of and performing of birthday rituals, and extend our rather limited concept of celebration to include a gamut of options. There is but a small repertoire of actions, which value only one style of social behaviours, and are riddled with assumptions. It takes courage, if not defiance to break away in both practical and emotional terms.

As I write, I realise that there will also be non-autistics who would also like a little less social pressure around birthdays, and although my post attempts to go more specifically into autistic identity, I will be very glad to have you on board.

I’m not traumatised by birthdays myself, but I am a little wary. Memory is hazy, but I have a sense of childhood birthdays as boobytrap days. Days brimming with hidden depths and shallows.

Having just revisited the secret comforts of ageing privately, I observe once more that there’s an advantage to piling on the years – it becomes increasingly socially acceptable to hide it

Straightforward right?

No. Not once you start to unpick exactly how deeply social assumption runs through the veins of our neuro-dominant culture at each and every turn.

While we’re conditioned to cover up signs of ageing, this too can be a pretext for social activity. Neurotypical people are more likely to do this covering-up in company. Sound oxymoronic? Only when viewed from the outside, perhaps?

In some versions of what birthday is, the problematics of ageing are performed and mediated as a group experience. Wrinkles can be commiserated, if not toasted, and hilarity ensue over the less appealing aspects of ageing. Some people need this kind of validation and benefit from what I might term social superglue.

I get it (and even why), but I don’t want to do this, or any other version of it. Not that I don’t love my friends, I emphatically DO. I’ll even happily talk wrinkles and chin hairs over coffee or a glass or two. It’s simply that what I most want on my birthday is quiet and the absence of pressure.

So what’s the problem with that? You will probably only ask this if you are not autistic. The problem is that mainstream culture serves to mock and pressure those who don’t conform, and we are made to feel lesser about our needs and choices. Societal expectations just DO NOT FIT.

So I want my own oxymoron – to assert quite LOUDLY the absolute legitimacy of the quiet birthday. And I will give you my three main reasons (which may be different for other autistics who prefer a quiet time).

I don’t like to be the focus of attention.

Less is more.

I only have so much social energy (spoons) to call on in any one given day. Socialising comes at a great cost (think a two day hangover or jet-lag).

There’s one proviso to all this – there will be autistic people who DO want to go clubbing on their birthday, or hang-gliding, or get plastered with their bessie mates. And that is okay by me.

What we need in cultural terms is to take a step back from these models of birthday fun and take the judgment out of staying home, being alone, and binge watching on Netflix (if that’s what gives you joy). It’s NOT sad, it’s not Nobby no mates, it’s not wrong.

It’s TOTALLY okay to be you.

My one unshakeable birthday ritual is tea and cake – in a clean cup though, the above image is only art!



Published by soniaboue

I am an artist.

9 thoughts on “Reflections on the birthday ritual and autism.

  1. I found myself nodding all the way through again, Sonia, and I am in total agreement that there are no hard and fast rules regarding fun as an autistic or fun as another neuro type, but this kind of generalising is incredibly useful because in general we *do* feel the most pressure to fit social norms and we *do* find the most comfort in choosing our own way.
    I lived up to the age of 44 certain I was neuro-typical (or at least not autistic), and the conditioning to see parties as fun fixed itself into my psyche despite years and years of not fun, of failing, of exhaustion, of terror, of the most tremendous performance anxiety. Parties are fun, right? Rooms full of celebrating people are fun, right? Dressing up and nice food and music and decorations – I could do all that. But I could only picture and visualise the noise and the dancing and the socialising and staying out late and laughing all night. I couldn’t sleep before or after an event, I was always looking for the exit, often the build-up to an event knocked me out so badly I couldn’t talk (or talked almighty crap) once the performing bit started and I failed and never recovered from each failure. My fun failures repeat on me regularly and kick me in the stomach like an ever-growing tumour.
    The expectation to fit the fun as seen by others is still there, the guilt to create the fun as seen by others continues on my children’s birthdays. But my birthday can now be a cycle ride and lunch with my husband and I can be overwhelmed with contentment. And now I’m 2 years into my diagnosis I can see how weddings are not my kind of fun but they are very much other people’s kind of fun and if that’s okay by me it should be okay by them. Only – as you say – it’s not yet.
    As an observer I can see the fun – it’s tangible, and for years I thought I could feel the fun. Years of observing people makes you normalise things until you fool yourself into thinking you’re a part of it all. Until you step back and realise you’re not.
    So, yeah, please stop imposing “ideas” of fun on us, party people, because you wouldn’t like it if we did it to you.
    Thanks, again for the solidarity, Sonia.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Rachel, You make an excellent point about the way we try to convince ourselves that we’re having fun when the opposite is true. So often I tried to like experiences which actually knocked the stuffing out of me. Thank you for taking time to read and comment! Sonia xx

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Whether neurotypical or neurodiverse, I am always aware of the discomfort felt by some people at birthdays and particularly Christmas. My first proper job was in a psychiatric hospital, and included a department for people with addiction problems. January every year would see an increase in all sorts of admissions, brought on by the enforced, expected jollity of the season. Often impossible or undesirable to achieve.
    Working in schools, in a class of 30 children there are always one or two children, not diagnosed autistic, who would much rather spend their time in a quiet classroom than in the hall with noise, lights, weird food and dressing up.
    I loathe those John Lewis adverts with their middle class privilege and expectation of goodwill and cashmere cardigans. Life is like that for very few people. Everyone I know has at least one reason to prefer a quiet Christmas, or that a birthday slips by unnoticed. Why can we not just leave them to it? I really hate organised dances and games, and hate a dress code. I build myself up for the required PV night… And much prefer the subsequent quiet days when people just pop in for a cuppa and a chat.
    But if society states that the neurotypical conform to such societal hell, what hope is there for the neurodiverse?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Totally Elena – I was sensing all the non-autistics I know who hate a fuss would be cringing along too if they read this post. It makes you wonder why and how these myths and expectations grow and continue when they are not what many people actually want. Could it be the NT trait of social lying, the never saying what you REALLY mean that keeps it all going? I’d really love to know what eh mechanisms around all this frankly baffling behaviour! xx

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I think I do a lot less social lying now I’m self employed. There’s a myth that the social lying greases the wheels and makes everyone happier because there’s no ” boat-rocking”… when everyone would be much happier if they said “actually, I really don’t enjoy doing things that way”, and that it was accepted as a valid response, and not deemed “rude”

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Though I always recognized my son didn’t want a big birthday bash, I always tried to “make it special” by having a couple of friends over for cake, etc. At 16 he was diagnosed as autistic. This year for his 18th I ordered his favorite pizza delivered, served his favorite ice cream (without singing!) and we watched a movie- just the two of us. I gave him his unwrapped presents (‘why wrap them?’ he asks) without fanfare.
    Keep writing – I’m learning!

    Liked by 1 person

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