Should you invite the special needs child to your child’s birthday party?

That was last week’s quandary, and it prompted, initially, the expected knee-jerk reactions from the moment a parent posted it on my Facebook page: of course you should!

But the parent who wrote the question knows there’s a huge gulf between what people say they will do, and what they actually do — because she is the parent of a special needs child, and birthday party invitations have been few and far between.

That gulf encompasses not just the difference between intent and action, but a whole world of complications in between.

Who decides who is invited — you, or your child? Must birthday parties be reciprocal? Do you invite all the children in the class, or all the children of one gender? What of children from other relationships, family friends, teammates?

Some of this depends on age: younger children are more likely to want to welcome their entire class, older children to want to be selective — or exclusive, depending on your point of view.

So while the answer to the question may seem obvious in some cases — as many noted in the comments, if you’re inviting the whole group you invite the whole group without exception — it’s not always so simple.

Some of us will push for, or insist on, a party that includes all the obvious children. Others will support a child’s choice. And others might not even notice.

No one answer could possibly resolve this quandary. There are different kinds of “special needs,” different parties and different circumstances. Not every parent of a special needs child worries that he or she will be excluded: Emily Rosenbaum’s oldest son “has decided birthday parties are too hard for him, so actually I’m the one who feels sort of bad turning down these lovely invitations that always include my kid.”

And being included isn’t everything, writes Susan Ford Keller:

“My child with a disability went to parties for his friends with and without disabilities in preschool. Party invitations by ‘typical’ peers dried up in kindergarten, though. Until spring of first grade, when a lovely family invited the entire first grade class to their daughter’s party at a sports complex. It was bittersweet — as the other kids would say hi and just keep going. The kids weren’t mean at all, but just didn’t have much to do with my son.”

But “special needs” in many forms are isolating for both child and parent.

Although, as Ingrid wrote, “an advocacy approach to friendship (at any age) just doesn’t compute,” what’s being offered in a birthday party invitation need not be friendship, but connection and companionship.

It’s worth considering, as parents of “typical” children plan these events, or help children to plan them, whether extending an invitation a little further afield might be worth far more than the small amount of trouble or revision of plans involved.

Contact KJ Dell’Antonia at:

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