How to Plan a Birthday Party for a Child with Autism
A Doylestown mom shares tips on planning a birthday celebration for a child with autism or other special needs.
"To plan a party for a child with special needs requires some extra forethought and an adjustment of expectations."
For several years, we enjoyed small family birthday parties for my kids. They were little so we kept it simple with a few cousins and supportive family members. The food and entertainment were easy. But now that they are older and more active, we wanted to break out of the bubble we sometimes live in and hold “friend parties” to remind my children that friends are important too.
For my 8-year-old’s party, we started small, with just his autistic support class and his Cub Scout troop. We held a swim party at the YMCA of Bucks County, Doylestown Branch, with an hour of food and games afterward.
I knew my son would love the water and not feel pressure to talk to everyone, but guests had the option to not swim, in case the pool was too noisy.
I let parents know about the gluten-free pizza and cake. Most importantly, my husband and I instituted a buddy system with my children’s older cousins to make sure everyone had an extra pair of eyes on them in the pool.
To plan a party for a child with special needs requires some extra forethought and an adjustment of expectations.
Make your own rules
This is a celebration of your child, whatever you and your child want. Your child doesn’t like cake? Fine. He doesn’t like music and singing? Fine too.
Pick a suitable location
Whether you want to invite entertainment into your home or go on an adventure, make sure it’s the right fit for your child and guests. For example, Bounce U in Horsham, PA holds birthday parties separate from the regular crowd; they keep the same staff throughout the party and can turn down the music. They also don’t expect kids to sit still.
When we threw my younger son a party at Hatfield Ice in Hatfield, PA, we did a dry run the week before and ironed out the kinks. We located the bathrooms, party room and exit routes; determined what skate sizes are available, and that parents should be told ahead of time that they would absolutely have to stay for the party.
If a party venue isn’t a good fit, consider an at-home celebration with a visit from a “Mad Scientist” from Mad Science of the Delaware Valley or a balloon artist or a petting zoo. If you want to keep it low key, rent a pavilion at one of the area’s many parks.
Pick one friend the first time, maybe a few more the next time. A parent with three children on the spectrum gave me the best advice: Widen your idea of your child’s social circle, whether it’s grandparents, neighbors, even pets. Start slow. Don’t feel pressure to invite everyone in the class.
Ask for help
Aside from an invitation for parents to stay, invite family members, teenage babysitters or other helpers to keep everyone safe.
Keep it brief
Parties don’t have to go on for hours and hours. I know my child gets overwhelmed after an hour, so we kept the activity part to an hour and the food part less than an hour, with a quiet break in between.
Simplify gifts, goody bags, activities
We made it very clear to our child that he wouldn’t be opening presents at the party since I knew that would be a trigger.
We also left candy and things that might be a distraction out of the goody bags. I made a rookie mistake and forgot to make a few extra bags for the siblings of my son’s classmates who came along.
Celebrate your child
I talked to the staff ahead of time, checked out the food options, and chose a place where my son was comfortable. I picked a room away from the hubbub of the lobby. Prepare for the expected, but do your best to deal with the unexpected. Make notes for next time. If a party doesn’t go well, there are other options. Go on a day trip, let her bake her own cake, or visit a special store.
But most importantly, in the words of my child, you really shouldn’t throw a party, but place it gently on the table.
Laura Hoover is a freelance writer from Doylestown, PA