By Amy Nielson
My son just celebrated his 4th birthday. His party was Paw Patrol themed. He didn’t ask for it, as he has developmental delays and difficulty with communication. But my husband knew how much he loved Paw Patrol and insisted, despite me having a hundred other more “Pintresty” ideas, I am glad I listened to my husband! My son had a wonderful time and his party was a great success.
Prior to the party, I was super nervous. I had a million “what ifs” going through my mind. I often do this when facing the unknown. However, I feel like it couldn’t have gone better! How can you plan a great party for your child with autism? The following tips helped me; maybe they will help you as well.
1 Be mindful of the location
We chose to have my son’s birthday party at home. My three older neurotypical kids would get excited to have a birthday party somewhere they’ve never been: Chuck E. Cheese, the bowling alley, an indoor playground. But unfamiliar settings are stressful for my little guy and often cause unpredictable behavior. If you frequent a certain park or your child is super familiar with Chuck E. Cheese, go for it. However, their birthday party may not be the right time to check out the newest trampoline joint. Having our son’s party in our home meant at least I knew he’d be super comfortable in the environment.
2 Consider the guest list
My older kids would want to invite every kid they’ve ever met — the more the merrier. For a child with autism, think long and hard about who you invite. Obviously, it’s OK to invite family, but limit the number of children. And be sure the children you invite have parents who are understanding of your child’s needs.
3 Time it right
You know the time of day when your child is the most cooperative, the happiest, the calmest. You also know how long he or she can sustain that. Be clear with your guests that there is a successful window for the party.
4 Plan the food for simplicity and ease
I opted to make the food for guests as simple as possible and to let my son have his favorite Easy Mac. A self-serve Costco lasagna and pre-made Cesar Salad meant I wouldn’t have to spend too much time in the kitchen and could spend more time looking after my son and helping him interact successfully with our guests.
5 Make sure the gifts aren’t overwhelming
In order to prevent a possible meltdown, I didn’t put out his birthday gifts until it was time to unwrap them. I also didn’t make him unwrap them all at once. He’d unwrap one, play with it and then unwrap another when he was ready. Guests enjoy seeing the birthday child unwrap the gift they so thoughtfully brought, but this may not work for a child with autism. Let guests know before the party that your child may not open their gift right away, but you’ll take a picture or video later of them opening the gift and send it to the giver.
6 Plan activities around their strengths
Children’s parties are fun to plan and so are games and activities, but to help the party be successful, keep activities and games simple. Our son doesn’t play cooperatively or independently very well yet, so we decided our activity would be swimming. We have a pool, so this was easy. We made sure to have plenty of pool toys so sharing wasn’t a problem. If your party is at a park, you already have built-in activities! You know which activities your child finds motivating and enjoyable. Stick to those instead of trying something new.
7 Keep the theme and decor simple
Because of his autism, our son couldn’t share with us what theme he’d like, but as I said before, my husband knew. Pick a theme you know will get your child super excited, but keep the decor simple to not be too overwhelming. We opted for some giant Paw Patrol balloons (they are still floating around our living room) and some Paw Patrol cookies. Even if your child can’t verbalize it, you know what they love! Use that to get them excited about their special day.
8 After the party, get your child back into their routine right away
I believe this is the most important step. Children with autism thrive best in structure. As soon as my son’s party was over, he went down for his nap. My husband and I quickly put the house back together and got things back to normal. Easter was the next day. However, I elected to skip my son waking up to a huge Easter basket filled with more goodies. I wanted to help him get back to his typical routine. Two days in a row with goodies and different routines can cause a huge disruption in his expectations. The party needed to come in like a lamb and go out like a lion. Easy in, quickly out!
Any event that is out of the ordinary for your child with autism needs to be thoroughly planned for success. At the end of the day, my son was happy and proudly telling everyone who asked “I’m 4!” It was a great birthday party and we now look forward to (instead of worrying about) our next fun event!
“I am what I am! That’s a great thing to be. If I say so myself, Happy Birthday to me!” – Dr. Seuss
Amy Nielson is a former educator, mother of 4, and creator of the Big Abilities blog and podcast.