Post in collaboration with Autism Spectrum Australia
Of all the challenges that face autism families, the prospect of a party, of any kind, can be be one of the most intimidating.
Parties are problematic in so many ways for people on the spectrum.
To start with, they are full of sensory threats – balloons, bright lights, loud music, moving people, crowds – just to name a few. Which pose a challenge to those who are particularly sensitive to external input. The thought of being overwhelmed and overstimulated by pretty much everything around you would be enough to make anyone anxious about attending a party.
I must confess we have had our fair share of party triumphs and tragedies over the years.
Gilbert’s Ninjago party was one of our triumphs!
The biggest issue we have faced is managing the expectations of our son. For instance, he does not consider a party is a party unless there is a loot or lolly bag for the guests. As he grows older (he is now 12) this is something we will need to deal with as lolly bags become less relevant to teen parties.
But he has made progress. Early on he could not cope with the stimulation of the lights being dimmed, the birthday song being sung and the candles being blown out. He would go into meltdown every single time. However, in recent years, he has been able to better cope with these birthday party staples – preparation makes a world of difference!
My son also fears balloons (he doesn’t like how they sound and that they may burst), has strong ideas on what constitutes “party food” (here’s a hint – sandwiches and fruit do not make the cut!) and becomes overwhelmed with the social pressures and expectations that come with a party. Generally, he can last about two hours before it becomes clear that he needs some space and some time to decompress.
Over the years I’ve become accustomed to rocking up to a party and being the only parent to stick around. I know things can turn sour in a moment and I only have a small window of opportunity to turn things around should Gilbert become overwhelmed.
Having said all that, it is possible to make parties autism inclusive. Actually, it’s surprisingly easy to do so.
ASPECT, as part of their 50th birthday celebrations, have put together a Big Birthday Bake Club with a list of ways to make parties autism inclusive. These 8 tips are practical ways to make your next birthday party a success – the secret is all about the planning, preparation and communication ahead of time.
ASPECT’s guide on how to host an autism inclusive party
- It’s all about the talk: Touching base with parents ahead of time can help mitigate some of the uncertainty about what’s needed on the day. If you’re hosting the party for your child with autism, explaining to parents how it might differ to other parties can help them prepare their children ahead of time. Also, if your child has a friend with autism and you’re unsure how you can be more inclusive, reaching out to their parents, inviting them along and showing a willingness to make accommodations goes along way to setting the tone for the day.
- Structure: Many of us don’t appreciate that parties can be quite chaotic, confusing and difficult to join in. The more you have activities that have a structure – a predictable pattern of steps – the better. So for birthday parties, games like ‘pass the parcel’ are easy to join in.
- Predictability: The more you can explain what is going to happen & when the better. Typically this is done with some sort of visual timetable and will include start & finish times as well as key events through the party.
- Expectations: Parties are occasional events and full of ‘out of routine’ activities. It really helps to have a shared understanding of what is going to happen beforehand (who is coming, why, what the positive social rules are). This might include rules around eating cakes – we wait until someone cuts slices, share with everyone & maximum 2 slices!
- Alternative activities: Consider having a section of the party with fun things to do as an alternative to the regular party games. Whether that’s a slime station, Lego, or activities that are familiar and enjoyable – somewhere to decompress without having to go home
- Happy birthday song: For some kids, singing the happy birthday song can actually be very overwhelming. For some, it is the noise that causes the meltdown, for others, it is the unexpectedness. Prepare your child ahead of time for when this is going to happen, or else simply go without it. Autism birthday parties don’t have to follow any rules, except for the ones you make for them.
- Be aware of sensory issues: It goes without saying that most kids with autism have sensory issues. Be aware of the amount of noise, smells, touch, and visual chaos in your party and adjust according to your child’s needs. Strike a balance between stimulating and relaxing activities. A quiet retreat space is valuable, and be aware of signs of stress or sensory discomfort and act early.
- Go with the flow: We can’t stress this enough – don’t have a jam packed strict schedule unless you’re prepared to deviate based on everyone’s enjoyment. If someone is overwhelmed and wants to sit something out, that’s okay! Hide away any items that are very special or difficult to share, and have a good time!
I have to say I love the above tips from ASPECT about how to plan and prepare for parties for kids on the spectrum. Although I have a few extra to add from my own experiences so far:
- Set zones for your party – we have had great success over the years with setting up different zones with a variety of sensory activities for all kids, not only for those on the spectrum. For instance, at Gilbert’s Ninjago birthday party, we had a room set aside for Lego, another space with a video playing for quiet time, as well as a trampoline for kids to use to work off their energy.
- Ask about dietary requirements – many kids these days, not only those on the spectrum, have specific dietary needs. Make sure you know what the kids can and cannot eat and try your best to accommodate their individual dietary needs. For instance, many kids on the spectrum follow a diary free/gluten free diet which means many traditional party treats are off limits. It makes such a difference to have fun party fare available for everyone!
- Prepare for adults and siblings to stay for the party too – from personal experience, I know I haven’t been able to leave my son alone at many parties (particularly when he was younger) and there have been many times I’ve felt I’ve put the host out by staying. So be mindful of this and cater for added guests, just in case parents or siblings need to stay too.
Do you have any tips for holding an autism inclusive party?
Across July, Autism Spectrum Australia is encouraging people to host parties and get togethers to raise money and awareness for autism in Australia. Download ASPECT’s Big Birthday Bake Club starter pack, and head to the website to register your July event: https://www.autismspectrum.org.au/bakeclub
Disclaimer: I did not receive compensation of any kind for this post. I have personal experience with the many services that ASPECT provides and I’m more than happy to assist them by promoting and supporting their fundraising efforts.
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Wow your experience is really on show here and I’m sure you’ve had to learn the hard way with many of these things but it’s so great you can share your lessons with everyone x
SO SO Proud of Matilda!!
Great tips – and I think it helps everyone when people break the mould in one area of another. Who knows, the other kids might like the idea of stations and it’s the new cool thing!
This is really interesting. My son has a kindy friend who is on the spectrum so these are actually really useful tips for me right now. Though we don’t have a party coming up, we do have a few similar events happening.
Thanks for sharing these tips, Kirsty. As my kids enter the primary school years, I know that there will be future birthday parties where friends will need special consideration. I know it must take a huge effort each party. You’re doing an amazing job x