When you think of birthdays, what comes to your mind – gifts, cakes ? Well, these are the two most challenging things when it comes to my son’s birthday. He is non-verbal and shows no interests in toys or things that other kids are fond of . While my hubby takes care of getting a gift, I get the task of arranging a cake. . I like to bake a cake for him instead of buying one because it’s more personal. It took me a few years to get a grip on baking, decorating, and understanding my son; but when I finally did, this became something I really look forward to. I got to tell him his story through his birthday cakes.
For the 1st two years I was too enthusiastic to do everything over the top so we would order a huge cake for his birthday and throw a party , inviting a ton of guests. This was before his diagnosis. Very close to his 3rd birthday, my mom passed away so that year was a somber one.
It started with his 4th birthday. By this time we knew he was on the Autism Spectrum. His diagnosis changed our perspective so much, and for the better. We were more in-tune with his likes and dislikes and respected them now more than ever. He was into trains and how!! We had all kinds of trains in our house — Thomas trains, locomotives, battery operated, pull-backs, plastic ones, die casts — you name it. We had train videos running in loop on our laptops, TVs, and his tablet. The center of our living room now had a train table instead of a coffee table and we went to every single train display in town. His obsession with trains actually brought out so much good in him. He could engage himself appropriately, play with a toy, and sometimes have fun trying new things with his new hobby. He would talk to the train saying “good bye”, “come back” , “go home train” and many more. His behavior was so age appropriate when he was around trains. It felt good. So, this year was a no-brainer. His cake had to be a train.
As he entered his 5th year and was ready for school, we were frantically trying to teach him some basic academics . This was the year when we began teaching him colors. There were color swatches all over our walls . His hot wheels cars came in all colors. Every morning we would ask him to choose whether he wanted to wear his red shirt or his yellow shirt or the blue one. A walk down the parking lot ended up in a Q&A of what color each parked car was. It was about colors everywhere we went so it only made sense that his cake was all about colors too.
In May of 2014, we got the annual pass for a theme park that we had in our city . Vedant very soon fell in love with that place. We have wonderful memories of our days at the park. He loved the thrill rides, going up and rushing down, spinning around in a carousel, or being dropped from a height…he enjoyed every bit of that place . I owe a lot to this park. It helped him a lot on his road to getting independent. Vedant was accident-free at home but the moment he stepped out he would have accidents. However, after the initial few visits to the park, he realized that having an accident meant we had to go back home. His desire to stay back taught him to request to use the restroom in a new place and very soon we were no more carrying wipes and extra pair of pants wherever we went.
Although we had the “special needs” pass for preferred boarding on rides, as much as we could we stood in line and taught him to wait for his turn. He would often get impatient but eventually he learnt to wait .This was so wonderful because he could use this skill in so many other places. As he got used to the routine of waiting in line and getting on the rides, we started letting him go on his own on rides where he was allowed to. In his excitement he wouldn’t notice that we were not next to him. As much as it made him independent ,it gave us the confidence that it’s ok to let him be on his own. Given his love for this theme park, there was no way I could make anything else for his birthday. It was a very difficult cake for someone like me with no background in cake baking or decoration, but we managed to get a smile on his face with it.
Vedant has always had feeding issues. He still has a hard time chewing solids and he tends to throw up very easily. Consequently, food and Vedant don’t get along so well. For good or for bad, cookies, candies, and pizzas have never been a motivator. This has been a huge challenge for us and we’ve always been working on it. The hard work was now starting to pay off a little. Vedant was now showing some interest in food and it started with ice-creams. Several times during the day, if he had nothing better to do, he would come to me and ask for it. I decided to hand him a bowl and let him eat on his own. I’ve seen him evolve from a messy eater to someone who can clean up a bowl of ice-cream within minutes. This love for ice-cream has really improved his self help skills as far as eating is concerned. He also discovered chocolates around this time and very soon I was hearing more and more requests for “lah teet”(chocolate). So, a chocolate and ice-cream themed cake was undoubtedly what his birthday this year called for.
Vedant is primarily non-verbal and a lot of what he speaks is incomprehensible. For the past several years we’ve been trying different ways to teach him to communicate. We started with the traditional speech therapy , hoping he is just plain delayed and he will catch up with a little help. When we realized it was time to switch gears and try other things, we introduced PECS – the picture exchange system of communication. Though it has worked for a lot of kids, Vedant, for some reason, did not seem to get a hang of it. By now, iPad apps for communication were getting real popular and at school he was introduced to the TouchChat app. He is now using it more and more to communicate what he wants. Simultaneously, he got hooked on to a few other apps on his iPad. iPad is now his new best friend and that symbolized a progress in his cognitive skills. It also meant that he had more control over his motor skills and that his attention span was improving. An iPad cake would be a befitting symbol of this progress and that is what he had for his birthday this year.
Sometimes the little things we do say so much about our lives. This story that I was able to weave about my son and his journey with Autism through his birthday cakes is unique to him. Our son is the joy in our tears, the love in our worries, and the hope in our fears. He is what makes standing up and going forward everyday possible . So as we navigate the challenges of Autism, let’s not forget to celebrate the little victories that make this journey worth the while…and what better way to celebrate than a piece of cake!