As I am preparing for my youngest child's birthday party today, I began thinking about how difficult this can be for those on the spectrum. Parents can become quite anxious when thinking about planning for the child with autism's birthday but also attending those of peers. With a little preparation and education hopefully we can make it successful all around.
The Peer Party
Starting when your child is young, you may get invites from kids in daycare, preschool, Mommy & Me, the neighborhood, etc. These can be parents and children that you barely know but your child is "associated" with in these settings. There are lots of factors to consider especially if you aren't as familiar with the family.
- Get the Scoop - Contact the host and try to get a better sense of what the party will entail. Will there be a clown that you know your child is deathly afraid of? What is on the menu? How many children are expected? Having this information ahead of time is invaluable in planning but also making the decision if you wish to bow out. If you know this will be too overwhelming for your child, consider letting them know that you will be unable to attend.
- Overstimulation - Children's parties can be some of the most overstimulating events ever! I myself cringe when I think about being packed into a small space with 30 screaming, sugar happy children. Now imagine it for your child. If you can talk to the host before hand, find out if there is a quiet room that you can escape to if needed. Also, the car, outside or simply a pair of headphones can be a way to have a few minutes to regroup.
- Food - Hopefully you talked to the host and found out what food will be served. If you know this may be a difficult time to try something new, consider packing snacks or items your child will eat. Alert the host ahead of time. If they are unfamiliar with your child, they may be offended if they think your child chose to eat other food.
- Social Stories - Review ahead of time what is going to happen. Prepare the child for loud singing, presents that will be opened (that won't be theirs!), taking turns on the playground equipment, etc. Read the story many times before attending the party. Trying to prepare as much as possible is important.
- Advocate - It is a personal decision how you wish to present your child to the host. If you wish to use a diagnostic 'label' or rather just discuss it in terms of overall sensitivities is up to you. Let the host know what may be hard for your child. Inform them that you may not stay for the whole party, will need to 'escape' if things get too overstimulating or will be bringing some items from home to help your child cope. Educating others is the first step in a long road to acceptance but it is important when others tend to make assumptions regarding behavior they see.
Your Child's Party
This is supposed to be a fun filled day to celebrate the birth of your child but it doesn't always go as smoothly as you would like. You cannot avoid every conflict or potential problem but try to steer clear of as many as possible.
- The Guest List - Take into consideration how many people you are inviting and their familiarity with your child and family. We are conditioned to believe we have to invite everyone the child has ever met and this can make for a chaotic situation in itself. I may not get 'Parent of the Year' but I have not tackled the peer party yet with my own children. Sometimes grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins can be enough of a group! Try to think of it from your child's point-of-view. What amount of people would make it a positive day for them?
- Location - Where is the best place to go for a birthday? This is again a personal decision based on the needs of your child. Sometimes home parties are more comfortable and predictable than other locations. You have more control over your own domain and typically less unwelcome surprises. Some children are perfectly capable of handling 'Chuck E. Cheese', a bounce venue, an arcade or maybe a circus so individualize for your child.
- To Sing or Not to Sing - I cannot count the number of times that the 'Happy Birthday' song has left those on the spectrum in tears. This is again a personal choice and also based on your child's individual needs. Sometimes you don't know unless you try if this will be overstimulating to your child. Occasionally, it is not the noise but rather the unexpected noise that was the problem. Preparation can make a huge difference. You may decide that you don't want to sing, especially if you had bad experiences before, and this is OK! Adjustments to make it a happy party for your child are not a bad thing. We do not need to stick to the 'typical' party for those on the spectrum.
- Visual Schedules - Not everything can be planned perfectly nor go according to plan. However, try to figure out the sequence of events ahead of time. Review with your child prior to the party when things are expected to happen and the order. Use pictures, objects, or a written list of activities that your child best understands; use the schedule during the party to understand expectations.
- Social Stories - As with peer parties, try to review any difficult situations in story format before the party. Talking about who will be there, what events will occur and other things to expect.
- Educate & Advocate - This is the opportunity to handle any difficulties in others understanding your child. Recognize that some people may not be adequately educated about autism, sensory processing disorder or other spectrum diagnoses. Before the party, sit down with any individuals (including family members) that may need help recognizing why certain behaviors occur and what the underlying issues may be.