Last week, I wrote a column about the politics of birthday parties. Often, when we think of children’s birthday parties, it’s with wistful lamentings about how much easier things were in the olden days. When jelly and ice cream, and a few rice krispie buns would suffice, and in-party entertainment consisted of pass-the-parcel games with siblings or perhaps a few kids from the road – if you were the extravagant type.
These days children’s birthday parties can vary, from the simple to the elaborate. They’re a source of much excitement for children – a chance to celebrate with friends and classmates and feel part of a group.
But what about the children who never receive a much-coveted birthday party invitation, or the ones who never get invited on playdates?
Children with additional needs or who are neurodiverse often fall into this category. We may like to think of ourselves as an inclusive society, but how much of it is just lip service?
Mother-of-four Sarah says her two teenagers have had completely different experiences of friendships and inclusion since they started school. Her 15-year-old daughter Claire has autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
Claire “rarely has ever been invited to children’s parties in her early childhood”, Sarah explains. “Playdates never happened either. All of the other three children have party invites and playdates all the time. They also have a strong cohort of friends who have been with them through the primary years. Claire hasn’t.”
Sarah says things became very difficult during the late primary school years when Claire became very aware that she was being left out. Secondary school has seen no improvement in the situation and because Claire is in a small school, it’s “very obvious when one child is missing”.
Personally, it’s made me quite bitter towards other parents— Sarah
There is “no inclusion”, Sarah says. “Discos, the summer catch-ups, again no inviting. This results in Claire removing herself from Snapchat groups as it hurts less to her if she doesn’t have it waved in her face. She used to try very hard to get on in school and be sociable, but when being told her opinion doesn’t matter, eye rolling, whispering, talking about the disco, etc, she has removed herself from that position.
“She feels like an outsider looking in. She longs for the friendship that this group have and just to be asked to go on to an event, walk or meet at a house. I’ve worked tirelessly at helping this situation. I’ve reached out to some parents who I thought could, and would, help me. I’ve poured my heart out from one teen’s mum to another. I’ve asked teachers. I’ve asked local ASD help to guide, to support and I feel it’s not been a great response.
“Personally, it’s made me quite bitter towards other parents,” Sarah says. She has asked other parents to chat with their daughters about inclusion and ASD awareness. “But I’ve been met really with the attitude of ‘my daughter is doing well, happy and has great friends - sorry yours hasn’t’.”
Sarah says she’d love to see more education on autism in schools, “and how it affects everyone differently. I wish they knew just how much Claire longs for what they have. Just to be included.”
‘I am just upset for my daughter that she is rarely on the invite list’
Maria’s nine-year-old daughter, Julie, has mild cerebral palsy and hearing loss. “Throughout her time in primary school, she has never been invited on a playdate and she has only been invited to four parties since starting school. This is in spite of the fact that we invite the whole class to her parties.”
Maria believes this is linked to Julie’s additional needs. “She is just like other kids her age, loves singing and dancing and Disney movies. She is kind and fun but probably a little less mature than her peers. I believe that other children aren’t drawn to her because her communication is slower than that of a neurotypical child. Because of her hearing loss, she may not be able to keep up with the flow of a conversation. Or, if doing a new game, the rules would need to be repeated to her a few times before she would understand.”
Julie is aware that she is being left out, Maria says. “About a year ago she told me that others in the class were invited to a girl in the class’s party, but she knew she wouldn’t be asked to go. She simply was resigned to this and said she hoped this child had a nice party. On very rare occasions that she was invited to a party her excitement was on another level, looking at the invite over and over again, planning what present to buy, etc. If only other parents knew the difference they could make for a little girl by including her in some of the parties.”
Maria says their experience has led her to believe “that having a disability makes you invisible to other children, or that other children see the child with the disability as not worth interaction or friendship with them. Are parents not having conversations with their children about inclusion and diversity?
“My daughter has three years left in primary school and it’s hard to imagine that she will leave school without ever having been invited on a playdate. She is a resilient little girl who thinks everyone is her friend, but we worry that she is normalising the exclusion.”
Maria understands “not every parent can afford the big play centre parties, and it is probably the case that parents ask their child to pick a number of pals to invite. I am just upset for my daughter that she is rarely on the invite list.”
‘You don’t want your child to be left out’
Debbie is a mum of two boys. She has seen a vast difference in her children’s experiences of inclusion. Her nine-year-old son, Séamus, is autistic.
Debbie tried to involve him in GAA some years ago. “The people were nice, but it’s made known that you’re kind of not wanted there. I would always stick around for the whole thing if he needed to come out for a break,” she explains. “I just found you’re not included in sport. Anywhere you go, you’re on edge. You always have to explain and apologise – not because they’re doing anything wrong.”
Séamus’ brother is two years younger “and he’s neurotypical”, Debbie explains. “His brother would get invited to playdates. It’s just so different. Obviously, it’s lovely for my younger son. He fits in to all the things.”
Whole-class parties are commonplace in Debbie’s sons’ school. “But I even saw at his birthday party...there was a point where he was just sitting by himself. I was thinking, ‘oh God, it’s his birthday and he doesn’t have anyone [to play with]’.
“He loves people. It’s so unusual for him to turn around and say somebody’s not very nice. He really loves people. I’m trying to help him navigate that the best I can.
“Because I have two very different children, I’m seeing those very different experiences.” Debbie says Séamus would love to go on playdates. “Like with everything if it’s not impacting you, or you don’t see it within your family, or your social circle, it’s maybe not as highlighted.”
She says it’s perhaps less about intention to exclude and more about “not seeing” the issue. “I don’t know if there’s nervousness there.”
Debbie has invited other children to her house for playdates with Séamus, but those playdates are rarely returned. “You’re concerned as well as they get older and you’re reading about mental health. A big part of the human experience is just having a couple of friends. It’s not like you need to be the most popular. But friends are the good things in life.
“Having friendships and making connections with other people are the bits that are really important. If he’s more aware of it or understanding it, it could affect him quite negatively. You try your best as a parent, but obviously, you don’t want your child to be left out.”
Consequences of being left out
“I think for every child to be left out, that hurts,” Dr Colman Noctor, child and adolescent psychotherapist says. “I don’t know whether children with additional needs are less affected by it, but maybe because of their additional needs they become used to it. In some cases, the unfortunate reality is that these children have faced exclusion most of their lives and as a result may have become resigned to that fact.
“The consequences of being left out, whether someone has additional needs or not, are self-worth, self-belief and self-value all take a hit. They can become fatalistic to the fact that they don’t belong, or that they’re not part of something. They can often-times stop trying to engage or find friendships and maybe become resigned to the fact that maybe they’ll be left on their own.”
Parents can “try and manage the leaking out of self-worth and self-value”, Dr Noctor explains. “When something like that happens and the child is spiralling into a bit of a crisis of self-worth, you’re trying to find things to bolster that at the same time – maybe that’s reminding them of their own value, trying to find things that they are good at, trying to remind them that there are people in their lives who do care about them and do include them. And maybe if there are extracurricular groups that they’re part of, reminding them that they have good relationships in those.”
Dr Noctor cautions that just because a child doesn’t appear to be struggling as a result of exclusion, it doesn’t mean the child doesn’t need support. “They may just be resigned to the fact that that’s the position they occupy within that group. They may not be making a fuss because they just accept it, which is even more worrying in some respects.”