Today, I’m grateful for birthday parties.

My son, Gilbert, has high-functioning autism so birthday parties are usually a bit of a two-edged sword for him. He doesn’t get invited to too many and when he does we worry about how it will go. Will he be bothered by the balloons, will he be affected by noisy party blowers, will he take turns when having a go at the pinata, will he eat appropriately?

Birthday parties, like all social occasions, are a minefield for those with autism. The fear, the anxiety, the awkwardness all seem to be magnified at such occasions. It can be very tempting to take the easy way out and not attend, particularly when you don’t know other people going.

Today, we went to a birthday party for one of my son’s classmates so we knew the kids going and knew the family giving the party. My son helped wrap the present (after I eased him through the pain of seeing what it was and accepting that it was not for him…) and wrote in the card. When we got there he happily gave the present to the birthday boy and went off and played with his friends.

That is the most surreal sentence I have ever written. He willingly left my side and spent the rest of the party with the other boys. There were no meltdowns, no tantrums, no sensory issues. He ate appropriately, played well and most importantly, really enjoyed himself. It was the best party experience that we have ever had and I was so proud of how far he has progressed in the last few years.

I took the rare opportunity of uninterrupted adult interaction to talk to the other parents about their plans for their kids in the coming year. We have decided to transition our son into a mainstream class at our local school and it was interesting to see what his classmates will be doing next year.

While we all share concerns about the decisions we are making (I don’t think we’ll ever be 100% certain we are doing the right thing!) we all share a love of our kids and a determination to give them the best start we can. Hopefully we will all stay in touch beyond this year as it would be sad to see an end to the friendships our kids have so carefully cultivated.

So I’m grateful for this birthday party as it allowed my son to have a positive, independent social experience and allowed me to connect with other equally anxious parents – role reversal, anyone?