How do you celebrate the birthday of a child with significant disabilities? This turns out to be a problem for many families. Birthdays are important events in many cultures. They mark significant milestones in the life of children and can be major social events. But what happens when a child’s disabilities interfere with the ‘normal’ celebrations?

Unfortunately, birthdays can be the occasion for comparing children who have special needs with their peers. Disappointed parents can mope about how most children would be starting middle school after this birthday or would be excited about learning to drive at that age. When same-age peers attend a birthday party for a child with disabilities, the differences in interests and abilities may show up very clearly. Often parents end up trying to manufacture a joyous celebration when their real emotions are closer to despair.

To avoid this, some parents decide to hold a party for all the friends of the family and more or less ignore the guest of honor. If the child doesn’t handle crowds well, then it may be easy to keep them away from the party and to give them a few things that they really enjoy. Everyone may be happy, but it’s more like two separate parties than having a ‘normal’ birthday.

Other parents may have a quiet party that is centered around the child. The people who are invited to the party will be those who love the child enough that they can share in his or her happiness even though the party is not what the guests might otherwise choose for entertainment. Of course, this party won’t help the child build any new social relationships, but that may not be the point.

Sometimes the best decision may be to hold no party at all. If the child won’t be disappointed about not having a birthday party, and everyone else is already exhausted, it may be better to just take a day to relax. Birthday parties were intended to meet people’s needs,not the other way around.

I have seen extremely successful parties where the guests actually learned about special needs, and everyone enjoyed new and different experiences. However, I haven’t seen these parties happen without a lot of hard preparation work by truly gifted and talented individuals.

Birthday parties are one of those issues for which I have no ready answers. I am sharing here to let you know that other families face similar struggles. The good news is that Jesus will walk with us through these struggles.

If you have a child with special needs, when a birthday comes around, what works for you?