By Jennifer Costa
Bright lights. Loud music. Big crowds. Birthday parties for neurotypical children can often include experiences too intense for a child on the autism spectrum. However, with some simple planning, preparations and accommodations, any child can be honored and celebrated each year on his or her birthday.
While it varies from child to child, it may be easy to assume that your child cannot handle, or does not want, any type of birthday celebration. Sometimes this is the case, but sometimes it’s not. The logistics might vary from the norm, but a party can present a great opportunity for your child to interact with peers and have a great time.
When appropriate, allow your child to be involved in the planning process. The level of involvement will vary, based on your child’s age, abilities and preferences. If your child has a special interest, favorite movie or treasured toy, this can be incorporated into a theme. When you can, offer choices and allow your child to be the decision maker.
It’s okay to keep things low-key, inviting only a few close friends, family or those within the autism community. In fact, your child’s birthday party doesn’t have to be a “party” at all. Celebrating by doing a special activity, like camping or visiting a museum, can be just a memorable, and significantly less stressful, than a big party.
Parties can be filled with a hodgepodge of new sights, sounds, tastes and smells and can lead to overstimulation. To make things easier for your child, consider alternatives. There are no birthday party “laws.” If flickering candles could irritate your child, don’t have them. If sound sensitivity is an issue, or if your child does not like to be the center of attention, skip the birthday song altogether.
Presents can also lead to stress. There’s nothing wrong with opening gifts after the party is over, or asking for an alternative, like a gift to charity, if presents will simply be too much. Consider location carefully How does your child handle transition? Trying something new, in an environment that’s unfamiliar can lead to high-anxiety. If you are planning a party at a park, or other outdoor location, how will your child react to inclement weather? Also take into consideration the party guests: if there are other kids on the spectrum, be sure you have other parent helpers and are aware of any extra accommodations for party goers.
Use a professional
Sometimes it’s easier to leave the details to someone else, and planning an “event party” at a local hotspot can work out beautifully. Jerry Raymond, owner of Sky High Sports in Tigard, and also the father to a child with autism, has these tips for parents considering booking a birthday party at a special event venue.
Talk to the staff at any potential venue and ask them if they have experience hosting parties for children with special needs. Many venues are more than willing to offer advice on how to make their facility more compatible with the needs of your child. In some cases, music can be lowered, areas sectioned off, lights dimmed or distractions removed, to make the surroundings less overwhelming.
Choose your date carefully
Weekends and holidays are busier, and multiple parties are often booked. Consider booking a party on a weekday, when the crowds are smaller and the staff is not spread as thin.
Don’t forget to prepare yourself and your child for the unexpected. Cake orders are lost, guest don’t show and meltdowns do happen. Setting aside a sensory area where children can take a breather is a good idea. Prepare your child by explaining that parties are special and don’t happen every day, therefore there will be a change in their routine. Be aware that this might cause emotional distress and plan accordingly.
Parties don’t have to be perfect to be worth the time. Plan carefully, be flexible and don’t forget to have a great time!