Planning Birthday Parties for Our Neurotypical vs. Neurodivergent Kids

One of the biggest areas of stretching and growth for my husband and I when it comes to parenting is navigating the differences between our neurotypical and neurodivergent kids. Our son is eight years old and neurodivergent; our daughter is six and neurotypical. They are both smart, capable, beautiful children with amazing gifts that surprise us every day.

But apart from their striking similarities, they are also quite different in several ways. Perhaps one of the most pronounced differences between them is how they respond to social situations. My daughter is incredibly extroverted, always wanting to be surrounded by people and hardly ever seeming shy or withdrawn. I’ve seldom seen her act anxious or socially uncomfortable, and she tends to attract people’s attention everywhere she goes.


My son is quite the opposite. He is most comfortable around people he knows—mainly family and friends. He generally prefers to be at home instead of going out, and he often becomes withdrawn when he is around outsiders. His anxiety is naturally quite high, and his rejection sensitivity is often fuel for his anxiety in social situations. He is often fearful of being rejected or left out, and this makes him skeptical of any type of social gathering.

We usually navigate these differences between our kids pretty well. However, figuring out how to do their birthdays (which are only separated by one month) has been a bit of a challenge.

My daughter wanted a big party at Chuck E Cheese and invited her entire class. Almost every classmate showed up. It was a huge, chaotic, high-energy ordeal, and she loved every moment of it. My son spent most of the party somewhat withdrawn, trying his best to avoid a crowd. We allowed him to invite a friend to the party so that he wouldn’t feel so lonely. When the friend showed up a few minutes late, my son went into an anxiety spiral and thought that his friend wasn’t going to come. It wasn’t about his friend not being there. It was about the fear of rejection.

In light of that, planning his birthday party for the end of this week has been a challenge. He changed classrooms halfway through the year and hasn’t had enough time to make close friends yet. His school doesn’t allow students to send invitations to only certain students, which means he would have to bring an invitation for every student in his class—only serving to magnify the fear (and fulfillment) of rejection. That felt entirely out of the question.

But, would he feel bad if we invited only a few people for his party when his sister had such a big party? Would he feel less special, less made a big deal out of? How would we navigate all these competing concerns and give him a birthday that he could enjoy without too much anxiety or comparison?

We finally found the perfect solution. It’s a virtual reality and gaming party bus. It can only have five children on the bus, which means my son had to invite fewer kids. Rather than sending invites to his entire class, he invited only a small handful of friends who don’t go to his school. The party bus will be all about him: they roll out a red carpet, play a “tear-jerker” tribute video, and make a slide-show of photos of him. These are the things that my son loves, that make him feel special and appreciated. And, most importantly, all of this helps to keep his anxiety and rejection sensitivity at bay. He gets to be celebrated and made a big deal out of, just like his sister, but in his own style.

It can be challenging navigating these differences between our children. We all want our kids to feel like everything is fair and balanced, but sometimes it just doesn’t feel like it can be. Not when their individual needs and differences are considered. Perhaps the best we can do is strive for equitability rather than equality. Not making everything equal and identical, but rather making things fair based on their own needs. It’s a complicated road to travel, but I’ve got to say I’m proud of how we’re doing it so far.

As long as our kids grow up understanding that they are both equally loved and cherished, that’s all that matters. I’m choosing to believe the rest will work itself out in the end.


Amber Wardell is a doctor of psychology and author who speaks on women’s issues related to marriage, motherhood, and mental health. Subscribe to the free newsletter to get exclusive content delivered to your inbox and to never miss an upload.

Check out her blog called Compassionate Feminism on Psychology Today to join a feminist conversation centered in openness, empathy, and equity.

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