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Birthday Parties and Autism

How to throw a birthday party for a child with autism

Birthday Parties and Autism
July 2012

Birthday parties for children on the autism spectrum may be harder to plan, but they are worth the effort. Parents know their child the best, so when planning a party they should keep in mind what their child can and can't handle. Planning ahead for the party, familiar faces and places, and keeping the party short and simple can make the day a great success.

Preparing for the Birthday Party

Some kids with autism will want to be involved in every detail of the party, while others may just want to be sure that their favorite theme is the focus and leave the rest of the details up to the parents to decide upon.

Janette Smith's daughter Katie enjoys planning for her birthday parties. "She always picks the theme- nearly always a year in advance and helps plan the food and activities."

Kim Davis, from the Indiana Resource Center for Autism explains how parents can best help their child before the party happens. "It is up to the adults to pro-actively give the child information about what might happen. Social narratives are a great way to help a child understand what happens at birthday parties. They can describe everything that might happen and also provide the child with strategies to cope with the sensory challenges that might occur."

Explaining what will happen step-by-step with a visual schedule can help the child feel less anxious. Some children with autism have difficulty making transitions from one task to the next so having a schedule can help remind them what to expect next. Depending on the type of party, some items to include would be welcoming guests, playing games, singing Happy Birthday, blowing out the candles, eating cake, opening presents, and saying goodbye to guests.

Familiar Faces and Places

Many children with autism do better when they are around familiar people. Having too many guests or inviting people they haven't seen in a long time can make the party more stressful on them.

Smith explains her rule of how many kids to invite to her daughter's birthday parties. "As far as size, the rule of thumb I heard when she was little was 1 guest for each year of her age. So we usually invited 1x- 1.5x, but there were only 2-5 kids that came."

Some children with autism can become easily distressed when around people they do not know very well, so many families have birthday parties at home because the environment is the most familiar to the child. At home, it is easier to control the stimuli that may overwhelm a child with autism.

Davis agrees. "We can be on sensory overload but can figure out what to do to ease our overstimulation. Individuals with autism may not always be able to access coping skills or may not even have any yet."

Short and Simple

Keep the birthday party short and simple. Many children are so overwhelmed with the attention they are receiving at the party that after awhile they may need to decompress.

Less is more for a child with autism. Simple decorations revolving around their favorite item is perfect. Any activities paired along with the theme can work when the child's attention span, sensory stimuli, and comfort zone are in place.

"One activity that is always popular is a theme-related scavenger hunt," Smith added that it is her husband's specialty. At the end of the day, autism or no autism, the result of a good birthday party is a happy child.

Tags: In This Issue, Parenting, Special Needs

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