6 tips for planning an Autism friendly birthday party
Here I am planning a birthday party for my autistic son, and the blogger Autism Daddy just posted about the joy of attending an autism-only birthday party.
That got me thinking about what makes a birthday party autism-friendly. Etiquette and tradition may be bent, broken or flushed down the toilet at an autism-friendly party.
How to plan an Autism Friendly Birthday Party
1. A theme your child likes
The theme at most autism-friendly parties is “have fun without having a meltdown.” I have never personally planned a theme-based party, but it can be very comforting to focus on the birthday person’s special interest, such as Legos, trains or horses.
2. Think about your guests
My kids usually ask for a small low-key party with just the four of us: my husband, our two sons and me. We can spread out gifts and family activities over the course of a week so that the birthday is not overwhelming at any time.
Autism Daddy likes the idea of inviting only families from the autism community. This allows parents and children to relax and be themselves.
My son receives a lot of support from typical peers at school, so this year he asked to invite his Circle of Friends in addition to a few of his buddies from group speech therapy. All of the guests should be people who will be very understanding and compassionate when the birthday person needs to take a break -- even if the birthday person needs to stop the party abruptly and send everyone home.
3. Find a familiar location
A birthday party is not a good time to introduce a new environment to the birthday person. For this reason, home is usually the best location for an autism-friendly party. In my son’s case, I knew that he would run away from guests and hide in his room if the party was at home, so I suggested having the party at a place that he already knew and enjoyed. He chose the local bowling alley.
Other fun places for a party are a science museum, Build-A-Bear shop, craft studio or local park.
4. Choose favorite activities
Stick with birthday activities that are already familiar and enjoyable. This is the right time for everyone to indulge in all of the birthday person’s preferred activities. My son enjoys cooking, and he had a great time making pizzas at a friend’s house. One time at our house, we mixed up a big bowl of orange play slime and let the kids get messy. My son chose the bowling alley for his party because he likes the structure of the game.
5. An alternative to treats
I know what happens to my kids when they consume too much sugar. I do my best to steer them away from high-sugar foods, even at parties. I offer carrot sticks and fruit before the cake comes out. Back when my son couldn't eat cake due to texture issues, we substituted an ice cream cup or Italian ice instead of cake.
I’m careful to offer food only after a physical activity has been completed, because I also know what happens when a child with a full stomach and low muscle tone exerts himself. Sometimes food allergies and intolerances are so severe that it is best not to serve any food at the party.
I send the partygoers home with a treat bag full of non-food items, such as bubbles, stickers and temporary tattoos. I’ve also been known to give out autism awareness bracelets and jump ropes. I once made the mistake of giving out noisemakers - I won’t do that again.
6. Accepting Gifts
Gifts can be the most emotional part of a birthday party. Some families prefer not to open gifts at the party, and bring everything home to be opened later. My kids do not like being the center of attention and do not like the “performance” aspect of opening gifts. My older son will cry and have a meltdown from the pressure of opening too many gifts. My younger son will simply shut down.
So I violate the Miss Manners guidelines for parties by requesting that all guests bring a non-perishable food item for a local emergency food bank instead of a gift. This is successful for my sons, because they get to enjoy their parties, and they enjoy delivering the donations to the food bank. At another birthday party, we were asked to bring a picture book to be donated to a local homeless shelter.
For many years, my son didn’t really understand what a birthday was. He didn’t know his own birthdate, even though we repeatedly showed him on the calendar. He just knew that some events were too much for him. But he also knows how to have fun. This year he was excitedly anticipating his birthday and telling us exactly how he envisioned it. That’s why we’re celebrating.
What makes a party autism-friendly to you? What are you celebrating? Please share in the comments below.
Karen Wang is a Friendship Circle parent. You may have seen her sneaking into the volunteer lounge for ice cream or being pushed into the cheese pit by laughing children. She is a contributing author to the anthology "My Baby Rides the Short Bus: The Unabashedly Human Experience of Raising Kids With Disabilities"