happy 5th bday

QBLOG: The Birthday Song and Autism 8

happy 5th bdayIt’s a big week in our house! Quentin and his twin sister, Fiona, celebrated their fifth birthday this week. Wow, that was fast! (Or was it…?) It was a momentous occasion for everyone in our house. This was, in fact, the first “big” birthday party we’ve ever had for the twins, and therefore decided to have it outside of our home, at a local puppet theater.

This is not a post about media or technology. However, it is a post about something related to how Quentin might interact with media or tech in that way. This post is about how Quentin tolerates sounds in his life. As a child with Autism and Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD), he is sometimes over-sensitive to certain senses, and sometimes under-sensitive (and therefore seeking out stimulation). Sounds for him work a bit in both ways.

Both of my children, up until this year, have always cried and often covered their ears whenever we sang the “Happy Birthday” song at parties. Last year I even banned it from being sung at their birthday, instructing all guests to simply say, “Happy birthday!” when the cake came out. The sight of my two children wailing away at such a happy occasion absolutely broke my heart in years past. However, this year I was confident that Fiona was completely over it, and that Quentin could tolerate the song without tears. I was right – sort of. This year, when the cupcakes came out with candles, Fiona smiled as we sang, but poor little Quentin covered his ears in distress. He didn’t cry, but he was clearly not enjoying it.

I have heard anecdotal evidence of other children on the autism spectrum having a similar reaction to this song. In fact, I’ve heard that a lot of neurotypical kids also cry at the song when they are much younger, such as 2 or 3 years old. (There are actually a ton of videos on youtube that show these episodes. Most parents laugh it off, but clearly the child is overwhelmed in each case.) I have searched for scholarly research on the topic, but haven’t come up with anything. Yet, I know I’m not the first one to experience this with a child with autism.

Up until now, I’ve written mostly about Quentin’s visual stimulation issues. Auditory stimulation is also something that greatly affects him, but it can vary so much. He seems to love music and singing (he is instantly calmed and comforted if I sing to him), and especially loves to dance. In this particular case of the birthday song, it is nothing but hardship. I am trying to figure out exactly what this is all about. So let’s take a moment to unpack the ideas.

First, there’s the fact that it is often sung very loudly, in a huge crowd. However, that explanation – that’s it’s a noise issue – doesn’t really cut it as an explanation for me. Once, when Quentin was being evaluated by a Developmental Pediatrician at age 3, she tried to test his ability at pretend play. She brought out a toy cake with candles and a doll. She started to sing “Happy birthday” to the doll, and he immediately broke out in tears. This was one woman singing the song, so it was not sensory-overload. Unless it was just the memory of the song being sung in a group? I suppose that’s possible, but he usually loves music and people singing.

Second idea: Fear of candles. Again, this explanation does not really work. Quentin is a fearless kid, and fire of a candle is simply visually beautiful. I doubt it’s the flame that’s scaring him into holding his ears, either.

Third idea: Fear of the crowd or all the attention focused on him. While this might explain why Fiona used to cry at the song (she has a lot of social anxiety), it in no way reflects Quentin’s out-going nature. He loves people, and was seen moments before the birthday party gleefully skipping through the crowd that was there. This hypothesis holds no weight.

In the end, the only explanation that holds up is the first one – that the sound is sung too loudly. The only other time I’ve seen him hold his ears like this is for loud, unpleasant noises (e.g., the vacuum, someone else crying), but I suppose the voices could hurt his ears here too. I guess the way to test this out is to have a group of people sing another song together near him. I’m convinced he only would cover his ears for “Happy Birthday” – but perhaps it’s just group singing in general.

Does anyone else have an experience with a child crying to the “Happy Birthday” song? Or does anyone know of any good scholarly research on the topic? Please feel free to comment!

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8 thoughts on “QBLOG: The Birthday Song and Autism

  • consultant

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  • Ear Candles

    This takes me back ! I have an 18yr old autistic boy who could not stand the singing of Happy Birthday. He would scream and cry every time. We thought it was just our singing!! Nice to see it is a trait of autism. He seemed to grow out of it on his teens and now does indeed take the mickey out of our singing nowadays!!

  • Geoff B.

    I, too, would close my ears in distress (or momentarily leave the area) if the song was sung, even to someone else. Probably the most dramatic incident was on my 6th birthday, when I tried to run off as the candles were being lighted and the song was about to be sung, but got dragged back being told it was MY party. I then blew the candles out in advance thinking it might stop the singing; but as the song was being sung anyway, I then practically freaked out in front of all my friends who were there–very much to my great shame and embarrassment as I look back on it now, wishing I could relive that moment correctly. I, by the way, have Asperger's

  • Jenny

    My 9 year old has spd. She cried and hid under the table at her birthday party this weekend. 9 yrs. old – it looked very odd to on-lookers and the room went silent with whispering mothers and blank stares. She was fine until then. I had to wisk her away to a quiet room. It nearly ruined the party for her had I not helped her understand that the other children could not have known she has spd,nor understand what it is for that matter. I explained she would need to give them grace and move on – once she was able to recapture herself. We told the guests we were checking on the dog. Se did not like lying to everyone about why we were gone for a brief time. So, she is starting to feel different. The focus, though, is to get the child to understand themselves and how to cope in such situations.

  • Lulu

    My 16th Birthday is coming in 2 months I'm afraid of the happy birthday song and if it is sang I'm convinced that I'm gonna go crazy and this all started when I was about 6 in early 2007 because my parents were singing to my grandfather and as I'm in a wheelchair I burst into tears and was tryna get away from the singing

    And then several days after my birthday on August 30. 2013 my psychologists sang the song to me and I was absolutely fine

    So I don't know what's going on at all it's bizarre and it's all started again . God I hate birthdays !

  • RT77

    Hi – this is a really interesting piece. Thanks for sharing. We have a 4 yr old and while she's OK with the song, she starts to make vomiting sounds when she sees the cake with candles. With other cakes she's fine, it seems it's something to do with candles. Any advice or similar experience would be useful to us.

    • Covert Coviewer Post author

      Wow, that's a new one! Well, I'm no expert in this particular area, but I think it just makes common sense to give her birthday cakes without any candles! You'll have to see how it goes for her next one. Perhaps cupcakes are another solution?