Birthday Parties for Autistic Children

By Amy M. Armstrong
Smaller birthday parties are less challenging for autistic children.

The increased stimuli and sensory and social demands of a birthday party can easily overwhelm autistic children. The good intentions of a big party often result in a stressed child and frustrated parents. Pay attention to your autistic child's limits: Structure his personal party and its elements -- the location, time, length, guests and food -- according to limits and don't challenge those limits when attending other parties.

Prepare Your Child

Prepare your child to attend the party, whether it is his party or another child's party. Grasping the importance of social situations -- birthday parties included -- challenges autistic children. Reviewing the activities of a birthday party gives an autistic child a preparatory preview. MyAspergersChild.com suggests a calm discussion the day before the party to explain to your routine-based autistic child why the day's activities will be different. If your child is the birthday boy or girl, practice blowing out candles to ensure success with this element of the party.

Explain Social Expectations

A birthday party is full of social expectations that many autistic children have not mastered: You must say hello to others in attendance and sit with the others while presents are being opened. You must be happy for, and not envious of, the birthday boy or girl when he or she receives something you want. Possibly even more challenging, you must act thankful for a gift you don't want or like when it is your birthday. You have to wait your turn when cake or other treats are being passed out. This much expectation can easily overwhelm an autistic child, especially if he has not been prepared for it.

Use A Simple Theme

Most autistic kids prefer a small, simple party with a couple of friends or family members only. A big party with too many game choices, extremely loud music, lots of sugar-laden foods and numerous kids running around burning off sugar rushes is not a successful scene for autistic kids with sensory limitations. Focus the party on a theme based on your autistic child's special interests while maintaining guest interest in the party.

Be Selective With Invitations

Celebrations.com suggests limiting the guest list for your autistic birthday boy or girl to people who understand your child's cognitive situation. Even if your autistic child is mainstreamed into a regular classroom, the last thing you want is for your child to have a meltdown in front of other children and their parents who might not comprehend autism. Guests should be understanding and compassionate.

Location

Select a location your child is familiar with and comfortable in. This applies to your child's party and to his attendance at another party. If your autistic child is terrified of large animals or loud noises, then attending a party at the zoo or on a train will be challenging, if not just plain old frustrating and unsuccessful. Consider keeping parties at home, especially for younger children, where things are more familiar.

Have An Exit Plan

The need for an exit strategy exists for autistic children in any situation less alone the socially-stressful birthday party. Nothing will alienate other children more than your child going into a full-scale meltdown. Monitor a younger autistic child for triggers and signs that a meltdown is coming and politely excuse yourselves from the party. Establish a code word with older autistic children who are competent with self-regulation and commit to leaving if the code word is stated. An at-home party provides an autistic child with an escape clause: He can always seek respite in his bedroom if he becomes overwhelmed. Let your child know that it is OK for him to take a break from any activity.