Henry’s birthdays up to now have often been a bit of a non-event. We’ve tried hard to make them special and he’s usually enjoyed himself, but apart from an interest in birthday cake he has never bothered with the things that make the day a Birthday: presents, cards, parties. Yesterday he was 11, and there was a significant change in his attitude. He was interested in his presents and keen to unwrap them, even doing some independently rather than giving up at the first tough piece of sellotape and wandering off. He opened some cards and even (pass the brandy) looked at them!
The very best part of the day though, was his party. We held it at the West Huntspill Miniature Railway, a local organisation run by model railway enthusiasts, who have been driving their steam and electric trains around the Memorial Fields for the past forty years. They’re open to the public on Sunday afternoons, but also hire the railway out for private parties: three hours of unlimited rides for an unlimited number of guests. I was a bit anxious about a three hour party for 14 children, most of whom have special needs, thinking it could be too long, but my fears were unfounded. What I’d forgotten is how much time it takes some of our children, particularly those with autism, to ‘warm up’ to a new environment and activities. For the first hour many of them were cautious, preferring to watch the trains whizzing round rather than venture on themselves. Henry loves trains and has been to this railway twice before, but even he took some convincing. By the end, however, nearly every child had ridden, and for the last fifteen minutes the kindly, calm men who run the show were inundated by children(and their parents) wanting just one more turn around the track. The field was big enough for football, parachute games and, in Henry’s case, endless piggy backs – the fact we had so much space made a huge difference, allowing children to get away from the crowd if they needed and taking away the sensory onslaught that can often make indoor parties overwhelming. And at the end, when the birthday cake was brought over to the station platform, Henry came running over smiling, made a creditable effort to blow out his candles and was delighted rather than cowed by the loud and enthusiastic singing of Happy Birthday. As I watched the faces around us, I realised how lucky Henry is to have this peer group, many of whom he’s known for years and will continue to mix with when he goes back to school next September. And also how lucky we are to have such a wonderful set of parents, friends and helpers, who act as a support for us as much as for him.