Although I accepted long ago that Dylan doesn’t like parties I decided to throw one for his 21st birthday. Why? I suppose because it is considered a year to celebrate. I can succumb to such suggestion: I don’t like parties either but I marked my 50th when the time came.
As well as 21 being a special number, the time seemed apposite. As I reflected in my last post, the search for somewhere for Dylan to live appears to be reaching an end. If all goes to plan I would expect Dylan to be embarking on the next stage of his life fairly soon. While the proposals are still on the drawing board, and subject to Dylan’s approval, it does seem that we have reached a crossroads. Dylan’s 21st birthday therefore seemed a good opportunity to take stock and look back in celebration at his life so far. [postscript: as I was about to publish this I received devastating news about Dylan’s placement about which more in a future post]
Earth, Sky and Stone
Once I’d decided to hold an event I was faced with the questions what and where. Dylan had enjoyed a friend’s ‘at home’ party recently but this wouldn’t work for Dylan who retreats to his bedroom if we have visitors. A Disney movie at Dylan’s favourite cinema would go down a treat with Dylan but wouldn’t be anything out of the ordinary or to everyone’s taste. An ice-skating party would also delight Dylan but would exclude others – and although pleasing Dylan and his peers was important, most of the guests would be adults who had supported us over the years.
In the end I settled on a tea party with music and dancing at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. The park is one of Dylan’s favourite places and somewhere he has visited since he was a baby in a backpack. The combination of earth, sky and stone is magical and has brought us peaceful healing at times of grief as well as much joy. Happily, a room in the visitor centre appeared perfect for Dylan’s party: clear boundaries, white walls, natural light, good acoustics, and a lobby and annex for timeouts.
Anxieties and Absences
While the room and venue seemed ideal I was concerned that Dylan already associated the park with a particular routine; a trip there involves a two hour hike around the perimeter before a switchback past the lake and refreshments at the visitor centre. Would Dylan accept a visit for a different purpose? There was a possibility, I reflected, that he might not get to his party on the day.
Taking Dylan to see the room reassured me he would walk down a corridor we didn’t usually use and allowed me to photograph him for a social story. Another way I tried to prepare Dylan was to involve him in sending out invitations. While Dylan might not connect sticking stamps on envelopes with a party, the activity provided an opportunity for me to talk to him about the event. Dylan understands the words ‘birthday’, ‘balloon’, ‘cake’, ‘music’, ‘dancing’ and ‘presents’ so I repeated these while pointing to the invitation and naming his guests.
How Dylan would cope with the guest list I had drawn up was another of my worries. I had envisaged the party as a celebration of Dylan’s life so it was important to me that I invited people who had supported him in the past. This meant that the guest list included care workers and PAs, childminders and neighbours as well as family friends and young people with autism. Some of the guests had provided support to me, rather than directly to Dylan, so he knew them less well. Others have a special role in our lives – two friends who are Dylan’s trustees for example. What would be the impact on Dylan of bringing together these various people from different contexts? And what sense would he make of absences? If someone who Dylan hadn’t seen since 2006 appeared, would he expect his Gran (who died that year) to walk through the door as well?
Support and Loss
Two people who would be out of context at the party were J and A, care workers at Dylan’s day centre. I would, I realised on the run up to the party, find it difficult to manage the event while supervising Dylan who requires 1:1 support at all times and 2:1 support in the community. As a single parent I cannot provide this so I continually run (sometimes erroneously calculated) risks; such hazarding at a party for 35 guests was not, I realised, a good idea.
Fortunately J and A, who know Dylan and have a good relationship with him, agreed to work the party. Having PA support for Dylan was an enormous help and freed me to spend time with Dylan’s guests. It also had an impact on how Dylan spent his time however; while untroubled by J and A being out of context, Dylan stuck very close to them. I wondered if this was Dylan’s way of managing an event which brought together multiple contexts; rather than move between them, he opted for the clarity of a familiar relationship. This definitely seemed to help Dylan to settle and as the party progressed he moved around the room more independently.
Although I was glad to have the PA support, it did mean a certain ‘loss’ of Dylan on the day (though I would have experienced other losses had I been supporting him myself). It was Dylan’s party though, not mine; the important thing was that he was happy. And everyone agreed that Dylan seemed to be having a magnificent time; by the end of it, he was up on stage, high kicking to the music.
Take Me To Church
Dylan chose the music for the party which included a Blues compilation, Hozier, Adele, Sam Smith and Florence and the Machine. Giving Dylan control of the music was a way of engaging him in the event and creating a sense of ownership. It was also important because Dylan uses music to ‘screen out’ sound, smells and touch which he finds uncomfortable. Playing familiar music, I hoped, would help Dylan to cope with sensory aspects of the party which he found disturbing.
I knew that chief among the environmental disturbance for Dylan would be us, his guests. Always ambivalent about human interaction, Dylan can range from seeking contact with others to pushing them away. Although I can’t always work out his reasons, some things I know. Dylan, for example, doesn’t like loud voices; shrill voices; excited voices; quick voices; tears; sudden movements; uninvited touch or eye contact. I know this because I am guilty of an awful lot of things on that list. Some people find it quite natural to adopt a manner which Dylan finds comfortable but I’m not one of them; I have to work hard at being the sort of person who Dylan can cope with.
Because I know that I am many of the things which Dylan finds difficult I assume that I also have the potential to irritate and disturb other autistic people. And if an irritated autistic person goes into ‘meltdown’ then there can be a domino effect where other autistic people in the vicinity become distressed. I know that this is true of Dylan who becomes very anxious if one of his peers gets shouty or disturbed.
Dylan’s party contained ample scope for someone or something to trigger an autistic person to behaviour which could trip another autistic person to meltdown which would in turn feedback the trigger with added anxiety and accumulated distress to another young person. While there was a bit of this, I was struck far more by the impressive way in which Dylan and his guests managed themselves in the environment. It was partly the music, I think, which helped Dylan to ride out his anxiety at quick movements and noise. A couple of times, conscious that Dylan was getting anxious, I cranked the music and let Hozier’s voice melt the noise in the room: Take me to church…
Never Never Land
The music which helped Dylan to feel comfortable was, of course, just as likely to cause discomfort to someone else. But at his own party Dylan was allowed to make his own noise and quick movements 🙂 He was also permitted (for one day only) to eat three pieces of cake. I’m not sure I would have allowed this but it was one of the advantages for Dylan of being supported by PAs rather than low-sugar mummy. But perhaps I’m just envious; by the time I went to find myself a piece of his cake there was none left.
I’m not surprised that Dylan went back for more; the ‘number 2′ was his Never land sponge. A silhouette of a city skyline (to represent the Darlings’ London) was iced around the edge of the cake with Peter Pan standing on top and ‘never grow up’ inscribed down the 2’s curve. The ‘number 1’ , meanwhile, was a fruit cake with a seascape around the edge and Dylan’s beloved Ariel on top; this cake carried the inscription ‘a part of our world’. Creating a coherent design out of two characters was the source of such anxiety that in the end I opted for simplicity and hoped that the cakes would at least taste good.
Unfortunately this strategy didn’t work so well for the buffet. Conscious of the need to cater for Dylan I asked for the afternoon tea menu to be simplified. Could we have some sandwiches without garnishes and condiments please? And could two of the sandwich options be on white bread? And could we perhaps have some vegetarian sausages, even though not traditionally part of afternoon tea? What I hadn’t anticipated, when I requested this autism-friendly food, was just how beige the whole thing would look. It can be hard to make plain food look appealing and nothing on the table tempted me (or, judging by the leftovers, others). I got home from the party feeling hungry.
I had thought food might be an important way of helping Dylan to manage the event but on reflection I should have ordered it to please Dylan’s guests rather than to suit Dylan – particularly because, as it turned out, Dylan was far too busy opening presents to bother much with the buffet. For after refusing to open his presents all day, Dylan suddenly decided that he knew exactly what to do with them. It’s probably true to say that Dylan greeted his presents arriving rather than his guests; he tore off paper at high speed, leaving his PAs to juggle wrappings and gifts into separate bags (which they did brilliantly). I had little idea, afterwards, who had given what to Dylan.
I was sorry that I hadn’t taken the opportunity to thank people more carefully on the day; I had, after all, had the perfect opportunity while Dylan was pouring the wine. I’d asked Dylan’s PAs to support Dylan to go round the room with a bottle of bubbly, filling glasses for a toast. I was pretty sure this would engage Dylan as I’d watched him pouring wine for people at a friend’s party. I thought this might be a good way of encouraging Dylan to interact with his guests.
Although I’d thought that Dylan pouring the wine would give me a perfect opportunity to say a few words, I was too preoccupied with how the pouring was going to focus. Perhaps, on reflection, I should have helped Dylan with the wine as that would have helped me to interact as well 🙂 As far as I could tell, however, Dylan filled up glasses beautifully; the only thing that went awry was when, searching for an alternative to singing Happy Birthday (which Dylan doesn’t like), I proposed Three Cheers which one of Dylan’s guests didn’t like.
And the Past
But the greatest hit with Dylan was probably not the wine or music or the dancing or cake, or even the presents, but a slideshow of his life I had put together. From time to time I would see Dylan glance up at the wall where the images were projected and smile. I suppose, given the importance of the visual world to Dylan, it’s not a surprise that this would appeal.
Dylan’s guests also had reason to look up from time to time; a challenge I’d set myself, when putting the slideshow together, was to include photos of as many people at the party as possible. One such photograph was of Dylan at a friend’s 50th birthday party. Could I email a copy to him at some point? my friend’s husband asked; his mother-in-law (who had since died) was in the frame. His request reminded me that I had something of my mum with me; I had brought (thinking I might read it) a blessing for Dylan which she wrote before she died.
My very special grandson, Dylan. I have seen you grow from a tiny baby to the very grown up boy you are today. I am so proud of the way you have learned to live your life. You are so happy and my wish is that you can always be so…
Wherever there are gatherings there are absences. Sometimes, though, it is in the spaces that we find our celebrations. I enjoyed the party but my special moment was before people arrived, almost alone in the room with Dylan, dancing to Paper Moon. As we danced, a photo of my mum ghosted onto the wall: Look Dylan, I said, your Gran.
I had in mind to make an album of the party for Dylan but for one reason and another didn’t take any photographs on the day. It is my biggest disappointment 😦 A big thank you to Bill, Bryony and Caroline for these. The photos of baby Dylan and his Gran and of big Dylan checking out the party venue are by me. The photograph of me and baby Dylan at YSP was taken by my ex-husband. The cake design and invitation are by me and my daughter. The Hozier album cover image is from Wikipedia.