As any parent of a child/children with autism will tell you, social gatherings of any kind can evoke a very long list of challenges.
Birthday parties are certainly no exception.
Generally speaking, parties are noisy. And colourful. And out of a child's normal weekly routine. And for children with autism, who are very sensitive to new or uncommon situations, meeting new people, crowds of people, sights, smells and sounds, a party can mean total sensory overload, and, subsequent meltdown.
As a mum to two children with severe autism, I can relate to the challenges. In our home, going to parties is a non-event. It simply does not happen, as my kids just cannot cope with celebrations. It's very sad, yes and we hope for things to change, but unfortunately in the meantime it's just the reality for us.
However, autism is a spectrum, and many children with varying degrees of autism are able to not only attend parties, but host them as the guest of honour as well, if some helpful strategies are put in place for them.
So, let's discuss some things that you can consider when hosting a party that will be attended by a child or multiple children with autism, or if you are planning a party for your own child on the spectrum.
1. One Size Fits Only One
The first thing to be aware of, is that every child with autism is different. Just as each child is unique, autism manifests itself in different ways with each child. Strategies that work well for one child with autism may not be helpful to another.
A child's parents/guardians know their child best. So, the best recommendation I can make for accommodating a party guest with autism? Ask the child's parents how you can help to make your party a positive experience for their child, with their safety as top priority. I'm sure they'll appreciate your sincerity and thoughtfulness, and will be glad to help in any way they can.
Keep in mind that what is considered "safe" for neuro-typical children is not always safe for children with autism. They may not be safety aware e.g. roads, sharp objects, swimming ability etc. So be sure to ask their parent or guardian.
2. Get them Involved
Children with autism struggle without a strict routine. Any event that is unfamiliar, or outside of their everyday routine, such as a party - can upset them. A lot.
This is because children on the autism spectrum find security and comfort in knowing what is happening every day and knowing what to expect. Surprises can create massive problems, so I don't recommend a surprise party!
Thus, it can help a child with autism to involve them in the process of planning their own, or their friend's party. They'll feel less anxious if they are made aware of what will be happening at the party.
Depending on the child's age and ability, they may be able to help with decisions such as:
- choosing the cake
- picking a venue
- which games to play
- choosing a colour scheme or party theme
- choosing invitations and decorations
- who to invite
- choosing food
To make the planning process an enjoyable task and less overwhelming, leave yourself plenty of time and decide on one thing at a time.
Simply asking a child what they would like or what they think of an idea can be too much for them to think about. So, you can help by limiting each choice to 2 or 3 options, e.g. "choose either an astronaut theme or a superhero theme". Too many choices can be too intimidating for a child with autism.
Using photographs can help, as most children with autism are visual learners. I recommend finding some pictures from the internet or catalogues from party suppliers and use these to help the child make their choices.
Perhaps, once you have settled on some choices, create a visual board, that contains photographs or downloaded images of what you have chosen, such as the decorations, cake, venue etc. This will create familiarity around the pending party and reduce any anxiety that the child may be experiencing.
Remember to keep the entire process gradual and positive and give lots of praise.
3. Keep it Short
Kids' parties are usually kept fairly short in duration anyway, but don't be afraid to shorten the time even more than average if your child needs it.
Make the party duration a comfortable length for your child (what you know they can cope well with) and stick to it.
It helps to set a start and end time for your party and put this on the invitations. Make sure the kids are rounded up and ready to be picked up by parents at the end time, so you don't go over time.
4. All the Comforts of Home
My family celebrates our kids' birthday parties at home, with immediate family only. It has taken years to get to the point where we can quietly celebrate in this way. It's a compromise on big parties, but it works well for us, in the sense that the children still get to enjoy a fun birthday celebration with a fully-decorated cake, a few decorations and presents, without becoming too overwhelmed by a large group of people.
Similarly, many autism parents prefer to host their children's parties at home. The family home is the most familiar, and therefore most comfortable, environment for their child. This is a great advantage to hosting at home. In addition, at home, kids are able to retreat to their own bedroom for quiet time if they need to.
If you prefer to host your party outside of your home, a familiar venue is ideal, or take your child to visit the venue prior to the party. They're less likely to become upset if they have been to the venue before. Alternatively, at the very least, show your child some photographs of the venue.
Try to book a venue that will not be overrun with people. Consider booking a private party room within a venue, and hold your party in off-peak times to avoid large and noisy crowds.
5. Limit the List
Crowds can overwhelm children with autism. To overcome this, I advise keeping the guest list to an absolute minimum.
You may need to be really strict (and very plain) with this. For younger children’s parties, many parents like to stay and often bring siblings too (usually without asking). Extra guests such as these could be disastrous for a child on the spectrum.
It is recommended to include a note in the party invitations, that the party is a "drop off, pick up" party. Include a phone number if parents wish to chat about any concerns.
However, it is highly likely that parents of party guests with autism may wish to stay. I recommend that you allow them to, as you may need their help!
6. Don't be Trigger-Happy
Every child with autism has certain things that they are sensitive to; things that upset them and trigger a meltdown. Usually, these triggers relate to the senses: sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch. Examples include:
- bright colours and patterns (decorations)
- bright light
- loud noises (cars, music)
- sudden noises (party blowers/horns)
- high-pitched sounds
- room deodoriser
- flavour but also texture of certain food
- being touched by others
- textures of textiles/surfaces/clothing
- hot and cold
These sensitivities, or "triggers", vary greatly among children with autism. And so do the sensory things that calm them (we'll suggest some of these later).
For example, one child may love balloons and be calmed by playing with them, but another child may be terrified of balloons, and completely melt down into screaming torment when they see one! So decorating with balloons would prove beneficial for one child and disastrous for the other!
When planning your own child's party, avoiding their triggers is achievable, as you know them better than anyone. If you have a child on the spectrum attending your party as an invited guest, then ask their parent or guardian about their known triggers, so you can plan to avoid them if possible. Also ask them what to look for in order to recognise a pending meltdown, and ask about what calms their child, so you can be prepared, or they can provide that item for you.
Do your best to advise other people, such as those you hire for your party - venue management or entertainers, and even other parents - of any known triggers, so they can avoid them as well. This can include things such as keeping music levels down, avoiding certain games, or even avoiding particular types of gifts for your child. Most people will not be offended and will be happy to accommodate children with special needs.
Here are some suggestions of things that can calm children with autism. Keep in mind that these will not work for every child, but they are common strategies:
- distraction toys e.g. sounds, lights, spinning tops, pinwheels etc
- water play
- sand play
- building blocks
- electronic devices e.g. iPad/tablet/computer/television
- favourite movie/book/toy
- singing favourite song
- trampoline/jumping castle/swing
- quiet time in a room/corner/tent with a blanket
- ball pit
7. Prepare a Safe Space
If you are hosting your own child's party at home, providing them with a safe space to chill out and calm down is much easier - simply put up a sign on their bedroom (or another quiet room) door that says No Entry. Your child will be much less anxious if they can escape to the comforts of their own room for solace and down time.
In a similar way, you can cater for a party guest with autism by preparing a quiet room or space in your home for them to chill out for a while. You can set aside some toys or activities that they enjoy and make sure they get the peace and quiet that they need.
If you’re hosting at a venue, chat with staff when you book, to find an adequate safe space in advance. Let the child know that it is their own space that they have access to whenever they need it.
8. Flex your Flexibility
Any parent who is raising a child with autism knows that they never stop moving. Focusing on a particular activity for any length of time is a challenge for these kids, even to sit down to eat is near impossible.
For these kids, consider holding a flexible party without a strict structure. This might sound like chaos, but it can work really well, if you play it smart. Sensory stations allow kids free play, and a place to retreat to if they don't want to participate in more structured activities. Ideas include:
- craft table
- play doh table
- building blocks station
- water or sand play
- ball pit
Alternatively, make the hero of your party a jumping castle, mobile play gym or a petting zoo - they're always a hit.
In addition, it may be best to avoid competitive games, as many children on the autism spectrum struggle with these activities.
9. Ditch the Gifts
Well, not the gifts themselves! Just the gift opening in front of everyone. Some children are overwhelmed or overstimulated by opening gifts all in one go, in front of a crowd.
And let's face it, most children on the spectrum don't understand social conventions or etiquette and may leave you with a red face if they happen to dislike some gifts that they have received, with their blatant honesty.
It may be a better solution to have guests place their presents on a table or in a tub, so you can wait until the party is finished and all guests have left before opening them, and go at a comfortable pace for your child.
10. Share your Plan
If you think it will help your child without overwhelming them, you can take some steps to help alleviate any pre-party angst that they may be experiencing. You can do the following for your own child if he or she is the guest of honour at your party, or for a party guest.
You can easily create a visual schedule for the party by using either photographs or animated pictures and short phrases and print them out in order of the party, as shown below. Photographs are easiest, but you may find free autism visuals via on online search, or if you cannot find anything suitable, use clip art to make your own.
You can also create a social story for them (a social story is a simple story containing short text and accompanying pictures or photographs about what will happen on the day from beginning to end, step-by-step) and go through it with your child in the coming week/s before the party, or the child attending as your party guest.
On the day, a copy of the party schedule can be hung somewhere obvious to remind the child/children what to expect next. It is likely that even if they have already seen a schedule or read a social story, that they will still forget on the day. A visible schedule can help to relieve any fears.
And finally, after you have done your best to plan, enjoy the party (and all its imperfections!) for what it is. It likely won't be perfect, but as long as your own precious child and sweet party guests have felt loved, valued and cherished on their special day, you have achieved a great thing, beyond just surviving!
I hope these tips have in some way helped you on your way to planning an autism-friendly party.
If you wish to host an autism-themed party or fundraiser, we provide some ideas and a free printable here.