Hi, I’m Craig Kendall, the author of The Asperger’s Syndrome Survival Guide. In today’s issue we will discuss…
Autism in Children – 8 Tips For a Tears-Free Birthday Party
One of the hardest things to do when working with autism in children is planning the birthday party. You know your child may have difficulty with the noise, chaos, and surprise aspects of the party, to name a few, but you still don’t feel right denying your child this rite of passage. What’s a parent to do?
There have been too many tales of a birthday party meticulously planned, entertainment hired, everyone having a great time — except your child is upstairs, crying their eyes out at the over-stimulation while their friends are playing below. This hurts, but luckily, there are some tips to avoiding this scenario.
To Have a Birthday Party or Not
The first decision you need to make is if having a birthday party is right for your child. When you’re working with autism in children, everything is different for each child. You need to assess each child’s readiness level individually. How much noise can your child handle? How much visual chaos or quickly changing activities? How many kids would be the right number? Does the child take an interest in any of the activities that are usually associated with birthday parties?
Some parents believe that their kids don’t “get” the birthday party concept, or understand what presents are. They say, well, he doesn’t interact with his peers, so why bother? But the truth is, your child may understand more than he is letting on. Even if he is not interacting in the traditional way, that doesn’t mean he’s not getting something from having his peers around.
Some parents say, Well I can’t tell if he’s going to be able to handle it and I’m tired of explaining to people why he’s different.
There are ways, however, to make parties less overwhelming so your child will be more likely to be able to tolerate or even enjoy them.
The more opportunities that you give your child to build social skills such as might be developed by an experience like this, the more likely it is that your child will get to the point you want him to. It takes practice, and you’ve got to start somewhere. If you make it a low key and enjoyable event, years from now your child may come up to you with some memory from a long ago party, and you’ll be glad you tried.
An Autism Friendly Birthday Party
So, what are the tenets of an autism friendly birthday party to better help tame autism in children? Here are some ideas.
1. Don’t invite everyone in the child’s class.
Consider the noise level. Try to either only invite those who you feel your child has some kind of relationship with, or a minimum of children. Some adages say you should only invite the number of children that is equal to how old your child is, but whatever you do, keep it small.
Throw out the old routines of clowns and pin the nose on the tail and opt for something quieter and more involved. Arts and crafts, a science project, or a movie.
2. Consider the location.
You are aiming for a quiet and familiar location. As such, your home is often the best option. But if you feel your child needs a little extra encouragement not to disappear in the middle, you could choose a location that he has enjoyed going to before for the party. A science museum, an arts studio such as one of those make your own pottery places, a Build a Bear workshop or even a park may be good places.
There are venues with a lot of bouncy equipment that kids can run around, slide down and bounce on, which is good for vestibular stimulation, but the downside is those places can be quite noisy. So take into account what you feel your child can handle. A favorite activity chosen by your child with three or four friends can be an excellent option.
3. Consider an autism only birthday party.
Unless your child is in an autism classroom, chances are that the kids you’re inviting are going to be a mixture of typical and autistic. That’s fine, but it does sometimes add a little bit of stress for some parents who get tired of explaining meltdowns and odd behaviors to the other parents. One thing you might do is to consider an autism only birthday party, with only special needs kids. Your child is more likely to feel included, and you don’t have to worry about what other parents are thinking at any time during the party. They’ve all been there.
Tantrums, meltdowns and a sudden need to wander away and have quiet time will all be taken in stride. Individual differences will be respected more.
Just be sure, in either case, to try to have a selection of gluten and casein free food or cake available, as there is a very high rate of gluten and casein (dairy) tolerance with autism in children.
If you do take this route, you might want to call the other parents and let them know this is what you are doing. One mother went to extreme lengths to make her child’s birthday party as autism friendly as possible, but hardly anyone ended up showing up. Why? She surmised the other parents were just too tired of having to manage the behavior of their kids and to deal with the dirty looks of the parents at typical birthday parties. Had they known this was a safe environment, they might have felt more comfortable.
4. Build the party around a theme that your child likes
A theme based party may attract your child and keep their attention for longer. The theme can be anything, perhaps trains or dinosaurs, Dora the Explorer, or whatever your child is into. You can get cups, napkins, plates, and even perhaps a piñata in these shapes. You can make up silly songs to sing or watch videos about the subject. You could have the kids act out something relating to the theme. This builds the overall coherence of the party.
5. Consider another option for presents.
A lot of kids with autism get very overwhelmed opening presents. They might get hyperactive or shut down completely. It can be too much stimulation at once. All the pressure to open the presents at a pace not chosen by them, to respond appropriately, to process their feelings and emotions about each one of them so quickly… It can lead to a meltdown, for some, but not all, kids. Some kids simply don’t like being at the center of attention. If this applies to your child, you might want to decide to open them at home, or you might want to ask for donations to charitable organizations instead.
Sometimes, with autism in children, kids can get very obsessed about what they are getting. They perseverate on it, and cannot stop thinking about it. This causes them a tremendous amount of anxiety sometimes. “Will I get the Superman Transformer doll?” “What if I don’t?” “Will I get the… ?”
One way to handle this might to simply tell your child what his birthday gifts, at least from the family, are ahead of time (but wait to the birthday to give to him, unless you feel it is more appropriate to do otherwise). In this case, the surprise factor isn’t doing him any good.
6. The Happy Birthday Song
For some kids, singing the happy birthday song can actually be very overwhelming. For some, it is the noise that causes the meltdown, for others, it is the unexpectedness. Prepare your child ahead of time for when this is going to happen, or else simply go without it. Autism birthday parties don’t have to follow any rules, except for the ones you make for them.
7. Visual Schedules
Visual schedules can be very helpful when working with autism in children. You might not know everything that is going to happen ahead of time, but as much as you can, try to figure out what order things will happen. Share this list with your child and go over it many times, so that they understand. Make a book with pictures and words to represent each activity. The most important element of a good autism friendly birthday party is taking the surprise factor out of it. This is also known as using social stories.
8. Be Aware of Sensory Issues
It goes without saying that most kids with autism have sensory issues. Be aware of the amount of noise, smells, touch, and visual chaos in your party and adjust according to your child’s needs.
With these tips, you now know everything you need to know to begin planning your very own no-tears autism friendly birthday party. Everyone deserves a day in their honor — it’s just, when working with autism in children, sometimes you have to do it a little bit differently.
And for additional tips and suggestions to ensure your loved one lives a happy and fulfilling life, see The Asperger’s Syndrome Survival Guide.