It was a heartbreaking reality check for Katie Titus.
As her daughter Julianna Lovitt's ninth birthday approached, she requested a party — Minecraft themed, her favorite. But as Titus started planning, she faced a hard truth: Julianna, who is autistic and just started third grade at a new school, didn't have many friends.
"She kept asking for a party, but we thought, 'Who are we going to invite?' She deserves one. But honestly we didn't have any friends to invite to a party for her. It's an emotional topic, sorry," Titus said as she wiped a tear away. "She's come very far, but she just not at the point where she's been able to develop those skills to build those friendships and bonds. But just because she's different and she doesn't possess the social skills that other kids her age have doesn't mean she doesn't deserve a party."
Titus set a party date at We Rock the Spectrum, a South Austin indoor play gym that caters to children with autism and other special needs, and hoped for the best. Then, as the clock struck 1 p.m. on the day of the party, she watched as more than two dozen guests, presents in hand, poured into the room to celebrate Julianna — a girl most of them had never met.
"No parent wants to have nobody show up to their kid's birthday party," said gym owner Milan Calloway. "I know that would crush my soul."
We Rock the Spectrum opened in Austin in November 2017 for classes and private birthday parties. But last summer, after Calloway heard about a gym in another city that hosted a child's birthday party to which no one came, she wondered if there was even more she could do.
Another gym "threw a birthday party and literally nobody showed up," Calloway said. "I was telling another parent that it just breaks my heart and she said, 'You need to put us on a list and, if that ever happens, call us up. We'll show up.'"
That's exactly what Calloway did.
Last summer, she began scheduling what she calls "open-invite" birthday parties that ensure that children who may not have friends to invite will still have a roomful of people to celebrate their special day. Once a family schedules an open-invite party, as Julianna's did, Calloway announces the date on social media and sends an email blast to a group of big-hearted parents who have told her they'll gladly don party hats, buy presents and show up with their kids for potentially low-attendance birthday parties.
Open-invite birthday parties are about more than offering kids a place to play, Calloway said. They're about ensuring that every child, no matter the disability, feels celebrated and seen. Pioneered in Austin, the open-invite model is starting to be incorporated at other gyms across the country that have realized the important and compassionate role they can play in children's milestones.
Julianna's open-invite birthday party on Aug. 25 was raucous and sugar-laden, a cacophony of squeals and giggles serving as the soundtrack inside a gym where kids were free to play with abandon. Julianna quickly bonded with the other children in attendance, with whom she traded candy, discussed Minecraft and joined on the zipline.
"They're all strangers," Titus said, "but you would never know it."
On the wall, running parallel to the zipline in big red letters, a quote declared: "Finally a place where you never have to say I’m sorry."
"That quote on the wall, I started crying when I read it," said Titus, who lives in Taylor and first visited the gym last summer, shortly after Julianna was diagnosed with autism. "Coming here, it was so amazing, because there were so many kids just like her. When she invades personal space or does something unexpected, where other parents would be like, 'What are they doing?' or their kids would get freaked out, that doesn't happen here. Everybody's just so kind and so accepting. And she is so happy."
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Calloway, 30, said she first realized she enjoyed working with children in high school when she volunteered at a summer camp for kids with special needs. After being a nanny for a boy with autism and earning a degree in psychology with an emphasis on child development and autism, she decided to open We Rock the Spectrum in Austin.
The gym was designed entirely with children with autism and special needs in mind, from the dim lighting and low music to the sensory-friendly gym equipment and allergy-friendly snacks.
"You can go to any indoor play place and take your kid with autism or Down syndrome, but we're legitimately built for them," Calloway said.
Calloway typically reserves one slot each month for open-invite parties. If she has multiple requests for open-invites within the same month, she asks families to share the party slot and celebrate all of the children during one party. She offers a discounted price of $50 for open-invite parties and asks guests to pay a $10-per-child fee that helps defray the costs of pizza, snacks and a sensory-friendly pinata, which the gym provides.
The families "are creating an experience for others as well and deserve to be rewarded for that, even if they need guests," she said. "It also allows lower-income families to be able to provide a deserved opportunity for their child."
When Sara Shalvey heard about the open-invite party concept, she asked Calloway to add her name to the list of parents who will gladly show up. For Shalvey, the call to attend these parties is personal — her 5-year-old son, Beckett, is on the autism spectrum, too.
"Having a child with special needs is very isolating, and it's not always easy to connect with parents who have neurotypical children because they don't understand what it's like," Shalvey said. "I love this idea. It just makes my heart happy."
As Beckett and his brother, Cullen, 3, played in the gym, Shalvey, who is used to feeling stressed and apologetic at birthday parties, said We Rock the Spectrum is one of the few places where she can exhale.
"Even at normal birthday parties, my husband has to come with me. If it's outside at a park, it has to be fenced in because Beckett's a runner," she said. "So this is just a safe environment for all of the kids to come, and they can just hang out and be themselves. You don't really have to apologize for much because everybody is just really understanding."
Calloway added that in addition to providing support to the birthday boy or girl, the open-invite parties also offer a valuable dress rehearsal of sorts for kids who may have never attended a party before.
"A lot of these kids are the classmates who don't get invited. And (if they are invited), some parents are afraid to take them because they don't want to be the one that ruins the party. We announce this is a way to practice your party etiquette, everybody is invited and it doesn't matter how you're going to respond to the party," Calloway said. "Kids can make mistakes here. They can do things that would have ruined a regular party that nobody here is going to judge them for. Nobody thinks they're the weird kid here or the kid that's different. We're all different."
"Also," she added, looking around the gym during Julianna's party, "it's kind of cool — we're outnumbered by kids with special needs right now."
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The partygoers also included Julianna's stepdad, Dustin Titus, and little sisters, Claire, 2, and Eleanor, 6 months, whom Julianna showered with attention.
"Aw, you're making her smile," Katie Titus said as Julianna made funny faces to delight Eleanor.
Dustin Titus said that because Julianna is considered high functioning, people sometimes don't realize that she's on the autism spectrum.
"Sometimes you go out in public and people can't see autism as a disability," Dustin Titus said. "They see her and they're like, 'Oh, she's just acting up. She's acting bad.' People don't understand, so you constantly have to explain yourself."
Open-invite parties also teach typically functioning kids about empathy and acceptance, something Calloway has seen reflected in her own daughter, Miley, who is 7.
"Everybody needs this, regardless of if your kid has special needs. Kids that don't have special needs have their parents bring them because they know they'll engage with kids that are different and get exposure and learn to be kinder humans," Calloway said. "We cater to families with special needs, but this only works if everybody shows up."
At the end of the party, Julianna, wearing a shirt that read, "Born to Inspire," sat in front of a cake adorned with decadent buttercream flowers and smiled as the table lined with kids sang "Happy Birthday" to her.
Once the song ended, Julianna paused in the flicker of the candlelight to savor the moment, brushing off prompts from her icing-craving buddies to blow out her candles.
"I'm not," she said matter-of-factly, "done wishing."
For Katie and Dustin Titus, though, a wish had already come true: Julianna had spent her birthday surrounded by a roomful of friends who just couldn't wait to celebrate her nine years of life.
"When you're a kid, you want to have a party with your friends. When you're autistic, it's really hard to make friends. So to have something like this, I couldn't be happier for her," Dustin Titus said. "Every kid deserves this."