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Don’t be afraid to invite the kid with special needs to that birthday party

Children’s birthday parties seem to have a life of their own, and finances may feel like a solid reason to limit the number of invitations. But before you ask your little one to identify her four favorite friends, consider the benefits of inviting the entire class. Do I sound crazy? Stick with me.

Six years ago, I learned my unborn son, Charlie, has Down syndrome. I found out while at work, locked away in a dark office, all alone. It was three days before our wedding, and my husband and I had little experience with Down syndrome. Over the months that followed, I routinely found myself consumed by guilt that God was punishing me and fear that other kids would bully him or make fun of him, and he would have no real friends. While I’ve come to realize Charlie is the most incredible gift God has ever given me, the fear of how others will treat him still nags at me.

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Two years ago, during his first year of preschool, Charlie was invited to a school friend’s birthday party. My husband and I were ecstatic about his first “real” invitation. It can be so meaningful for parents to see their children not just accepted but embraced and included. For Charlie, it meant his first foray into the world of Chuck E. Cheese chaos. He had an absolute blast. Whereas some children are shy in new environments, Charlie walks into every room intent on greeting each person and having as much fun as we’ll allow him to have. To that end, parties are his heaven.

But that has been his only invitation from a school friend. In contrast, his little sister has already been invited to five parties for classmates and has attended four of them. She is 4 years old.

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In Charlie’s kindergarten class, many of the girls mother him, and lots of the boys high-five with him. But if you were to ask them, “Who is your best friend from school?” Charlie may not be their response. He hasn’t been invited to a party yet. All the work we have done to insist he be included in the general education classroom is set back if that same dedication to inclusion isn’t shared beyond the teachers and doesn’t extend outside the classroom.

That should be a wake-up call to parents of children with special needs as well. To be fair, I haven’t invited any of Charlie’s classmates to play after school or on a weekend yet, mostly because the five-day, no-nap school week exhausts us both. That needs to change if I expect other families to reach out to us as well. I teeter on a tightrope of wanting to reach out to his classmates’ parents and educating them on his diagnosis and holding back, afraid doing so will just magnify his differences. Besides, it might be awkward if I say what I’m thinking: I will go anywhere, do anything and help in any way if you will just invite my son to your child’s birthday party and trust it will work out. Because it will.

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Charlie may not be on your child’s initial party invite list, but adding him could be life-changing. While Down syndrome often comes with intellectual and development delays, it’s not contagious, and it includes no known allergies to fun, friendship or frosting. Inviting a child with special needs may feel scary, but please overcome that fear and let the child’s parents determine the safest way for him or her to participate. Human nature is to feel nervous about something we don’t fully understand — believe me, I get it. But if you spend just a few minutes with my generally happy, occasionally ornery, consistently stubborn ball of energy, I promise you will smile at least once and probably learn a new sign.

While my son doesn’t yet fully understand birthdays, he’s never misunderstood the awesomeness of cake. In fact, he might never know about parties that exclude him, and neither will I. But a child’s birthday party is a once-yearly opportunity to teach kindness and the benefits of inclusion, and I emphatically encourage parents to have the child invite the whole class.

Teaching grace doesn’t have to come at the expense of a family’s budget, and creating memories of being surrounded by all kinds of different personalities and abilities (like in real life) instills values no amount of expensive, personalized party favors can hope to offer.

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If we’re doing our jobs, our kids will become adults who understand that extending or receiving kindness and inclusivity will always outshine memories of that one froufrou party that left someone out.

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Image: Black Poison/Flickr

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