Party Time

 Birthday parties. Let's talk about it.

Parties, gatherings, events, picnics, etc., where there will be lots of people, noise/music, activity, chatter/laughing, and hidden, unspoken rules for "appropriate" behavior.

The event may even be outdoors, which brings a whole host of safety concerns.

Or, the event could be near a body of water (pool party), which definitely adds even more safety concerns.

For parents with Autistic children, or another disability, do you just not go??? Is that the way to do this? How do you get a child through elementary school without ever attending a birthday party?? These days, kids have to invite the whole class. So in an average school year, your child may receive several birthday invitations, to loud, active, parties full of running, screaming kids, hopped up on sugar and soda.

Before we jump into what to do, let's back up a bit and describe the challenges: Why are birthday parties sometimes so not fun, and so very hard

Birthday parties/large gatherings are (often) loud, full of junk food/ice cream/candy/cake, full of people, tantalizing presents, music or entertainment, and the expectation to socialize ("You kids go play"). All of this can combine for quite the sensory nightmare.

Your Autistic child may find the event overstimulating, scary, uncomfortable, or painful (overstimulation that one cannot leave can be painful). Your child also may be unable to tell you any of that, which leaves demonstrating the discomfort through their behavior.

I have seen this up close many times, both "on the clock" and off the clock. I've been at kids birthday parties and seen that girl or boy seriously struggling and having an awful time, or attended birthday events with clients to provide support during the party. 

I think its critical to reset expectations and have a clear understanding of just how scary parties can be for Autistic children or adolescents (I'm not mentioning adults because, typically, adults with disabilities are not forced to attend events they seem not to enjoy, the way small children are).

The questions below should be carefully considered based on your child's age, temperament, sensory profile, and support needs, with strategies in place in case the party experience goes badly. Have a plan, then have a backup plan, and don't go it alone. Bring at least 1 other adult with you, or if you are hosting the event, assign helpers among family ands friends who know what to do and will quickly jump in if your child is having a hard time.

Things to Consider:

Do you have to attend/throw the party? No really, think about that. What would happen if you just...didn't go? Or what would happen if your child didn't have a 4th birthday party? I'm pretty sure the earth would still keep spinning. Sometimes, the level of support that would be needed as well as the needed accommodations aren't feasible. In that case, is it better to force your child through something they are unlikely to enjoy, or to just skip it? I'm not saying forever, and this could even be a case by case decision. Small party at a neighbor's home? Sure. Huge community pool party with 6 clowns, a DJ, and group party games? Maybe not.

- Don't try to stay the whole time, instead play it by ear. For some children, they aren't excited about the cake (feeding issues are common with Autism). They don't care about the social games or group activities. They don't yet have the ability to wait, so they won't understand why they can't start ripping into set aside food or activities (and may not understand why they can't open someone else's gifts). What will YOUR child do at the party that they find fun, entertaining, and is safe? Think about that, before you take them to a 2 hour birthday party.

- Understand that vigilant supervision may be needed. This does mean dropping your child off may not be a safe option (as the party host will be super busy), and if you stay with your child, you may need to keep them in eyesight at all times. It isn't unusual for my clients to 100% "veer off from the group" during parties, only to be found sometime later upstairs in a closet, or trying to access YouTube on the family laptop, or casually digging through someone's refrigerator. These can be very embarrassing moments, that could easily be prevented by keeping a close eye on your child, especially if the party or event will be held outdoors.

- Speaking of embarrassing, there is nothing embarrassing about accommodations or supports. If you are taking your child to a party or event where they can't wear their noise canceling headphones, or freely STIM (family members, sadly, can be very judgmental about stimmy kids at birthday parties)  without being treated poorly, that may not be the kind of event you want to attend. Again, parties are overstimulating for many Autistics. So it makes sense that they will do MORE of what helps them calm or regulate in response to being at the party. In other words, if most of the kids are quietly playing Candyland, but your child is in a separate room happily squealing and jumping, while chewing on a straw, will this be a problem for other people at the party? If so, I don't think your child is the problem.

- Take preferred foods, toys, and leisure items with you. Please do not expect that your child who eats 3 foods at home, will magically attend a birthday party and chow down on Cheetos, cake, and pizza. If they won't eat it at home, they likely won't eat it at the party. Also, don't withhold stim items or comfort toys because the child is in public, and other people will see. Those favored items may help keep your child calm and comfortable, in a chaotic and loud setting. On that note, it can be helpful to bring items your child may grab, snatch, or steal, if they see it in public. For example, I worked with a boy once who loved to suck on pencils. If he was out somewhere and saw a pencil, he would try to grab it and put it in his mouth. So in that situation, I'd recommend bringing oral sensory items with you so the child doesn't need to hunt throughout someone else's home for something to satisfy that chewing desire. Think about things like this in advance, and plan accordingly.

- The biggest tip, and the one I see cause parents the most pain and distress, is this: Please don't expect your child to be a different person socially, just because you're at a birthday party. If your child is not very social at home, they likely won't be very social with 23 other kids present. In fact, they may exhibit new behaviors you usually don't see at home (such as pushing, swatting at, or running off to get away from the other kids). This can be very hard for parents to watch. So can bullying and stigma, such as if your child DOES want to join the play, and the other kids are being mean or cruel to your child. Remember that earlier tip about close supervision? It's very important to watch how your child interacts with the other children, so you can stop any bullying or rudeness in its tracks, and so you can monitor when your child's social battery is "full". Most of my clients fill up that social battery very fast.....maybe 15-25 minutes of social interaction, and they're done. And that is OKAY. Not all children want to "Go play" with their peers for hours and hours. Observe your child, redirect them to solo play or maybe a calming activity as needed, and when they seem to be all done with being around so many people, its time to head for the door so the event can end on a high note. Don't be ashamed or embarrassed to say "S/He's ready to go now. Thanks for inviting us, bye guys!". 

I hope the largest theme coming across in this post is that large events/birthday parties aren't necessarily about you, as the parent. They aren't about the party host, the games, the clown, catching up with friends, hanging out, etc. They are about helping your child be successful, in what is likely a highly overstimulating scenario.

It is important to provide your child with the support and tools they need to engage with the event, to endure the event (again, consider if it would be best not to go if they seem to just be "enduring" parties), or to excel at the event. Whether the bar is set at engagement, endurance, or excelling, will depend on your child. 
And don't lose hope and feel defeated if right now, you are at an endurance level. That doesn't mean things will always be that way! As your child grows and matures, and most importantly as they develop more skills and abilities, they may begin to enjoy parties. Maybe even, to have fun at parties.
Give it time, and be patient. Both with your child, and with yourself.

*Recommended Resources & Resources:

Ghanouni, P., & Quirke, S. (2022). Resilience and Coping Strategies in Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Journal of autism and developmental disorders, 1–12. 

No comments

Copyright T. Meadows 2011. All original content on this blog is protected by copyright. Powered by Blogger.
Back to Top