Birthdays and Autism: National Diego’s Birthday Awareness Day

Will my autistic son’s birthday obsession ever subside?

Man in yellow sweater in front of birthday cake
About to sing Happy Birthday!

If you’ve read anything about Diego, you know he’s keen on birthdays, all birthdays, but especially his own.

Diego’s birthday fixation is unusual, not only in its intensity but also given his autism. If you Google “autism and birthdays,” all you get are stories about how birthdays are stressful for autistic people and ways to help them cope with the chaos of birthday parties.

There you go then, another lesson on the limits of the internet: It can give you tons of information about a diagnosis, but not the right information about an individual. As well, one wonders: What the heck is autism anyway?

Diego swells my heart and drives me crazy with his birthday obsession. Others — family, friends, acquaintances, strangers —only experience the charming side of it. One time, when asked when he was born, Diego replied with great delight, “January 13, the same day as my birthday!” He knows everyone’s birthdays, and, when yours comes up, he’ll send you a video of himself singing Happy Birthday, even if he’s bedridden with a nasty stomach bug.

The Anticipation

Diego’s anticipatory excitement when his day nears is almost as intense as that of a person who will be reunited with their spouse after a year-long military deployment.

He takes every opportunity to notify people about the important day approaching. When he went up for communion two Sundays before the big day, Diego informed the priest, in whisper-talk, “My birthday’s next Friday.” To his credit, the priest didn’t miss a beat, and either before or after delivering the Body of Christ, he said “Congratulations.”

Then there was the time he answered his nonna’s phone and announced to her brother Serafino, who’s over in Italy and hasn’t seen Diego since he was 15, that his birthday was on Friday.

Even if you’re fully aware of the momentous occasion, he’ll remind you of it every chance he gets. For instance, a week before his birthday, we were on the phone on my way back from work and I asked how he was doing. His reply: “I’ve been tired, a little sleepy, daydreaming about my birthday.”

And when I asked the same thing on my way to work (yes, we talk daily on my way to and back from work) the day before his birthday, he reported, “I’m happy cuz it’s my birthday tomorrow.”

The day of, he’s so proud and happy I often wonder if he doesn’t find it odd that people are going about their day as if it were a normal day instead of a national holiday.

If you’ve ever had or known children, picture the degree of excitement of a child turning 5, the age where birthday furor peaks (my opinion as an early childhood educator). Well, imagine if this level of emotion had steadily increased over the ensuing 24 years: That’s how hyped up Diego gets.

The Birthday Party

One of the great things about Diego is that he doesn’t discriminate. My theory is that he doesn’t grasp the concept because he thinks through associations rather than through society’s established categories. Associations usually correspond to his long-standing areas of intense interest: movies, Disney, actors and actresses, superheroes, countries, and animals.

If a woman is older, he associates her with Judy Dench and then with M in the James Bond movie. If a person is black and speaks with a British accent, he might associate him with Black Panther, a real panther in Burma, or Hugh Grant. A Peruvian person who can’t talk and uses a device, he’ll associate with another person who communicates that way, or with Emperor Cuzco from The Emperor’s New Groove.

No association is good or bad (unless he’s associating one mean act with another).

All this is simply to explain why Diego’s birthday parties end up being multi-generational, multi-ability, multi-nationality, multi-everything — as can be appreciated on this reel I posted (with Diego’s permission) on Instagram.

Next year it’ll be Diego’s big 3–0 and I’m filled with crazy happy dread. Maybe I’ll petition the town mayor (known as the First Selectman around here) to pronounce January 13, 2024, Diego’s Birthday Awareness Day. But then I’d have to do something even grander for his big 3–1, seeing as, for Diego, every birthday’s an epic occasion.

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