Being a parent is hard, but being a parent of an autistic child can be even more challenging. Yet, even if it's a lot of hard work with many challenges, everything is more rewarding when succeeding. It takes time to fall into a routine, and sometimes things can be overwhelming, but staying strong and patient is essential.
Birthday parties—or parties in general—are a source of fun for every child but can be overwhelming for an autistic child. Many sounds, smells, and textures can overwhelm a sensory-sensitive child: other children screaming, a chocolate cake that might not be to your child's taste, or experiencing textures that are disliked.
When throwing a party for an autistic child, you need to change the strategy if you want your child to enjoy the festivity. Your party needs to be autism- and sensory-friendly. Even that can be slightly challenging because of your child's sensory, communication, and social skill concerns.
If you let your child guide you, you can throw a memorable birthday party, so it's important to listen and pay attention to what your child likes and is comfortable with.
So, without further ado, let's explore the tips and strategies for throwing the perfect autism-friendly birthday party and sensory-friendly activities you can try.
What Is Sensory Sensitivity?
Sensory processing disorder means that people with autism struggle to regulate their emotional responses to stimuli such as movement, sights, sounds, touch, tastes, and textures.
For example, your child covers his ears often or even starts crying out of the blue while using the dryers of a public bathroom; these are a sign of sensory sensitivity. While it's normal for children to be overwhelmed by loud noises, kids with sensory processing disorders have more intense responses to light or textures.
Read More: 10 Sensory Room Ideas for Children with Autism.
How to Plan an Autism-Friendly Birthday Party
Since many parties can be overwhelming, having sensory-friendly activities is crucial. It doesn't matter how old you are; even adults can experience sensory sensitivity that is challenging to handle. However, unlike adults, children on the autism spectrum don't know how to always avoid things they are sensitive to.
It's important to make sure your child is involved and allow him in the party planning process. There might be many ideas, but you should always try to involve them. Speak to them about what they want—and ensure everything is going according to plan.
Before planning the best birthday party, consider these things first:
- What sensory-friendly foods does your child like to eat?
- Which cartoons does your child enjoy watching?
- What does your child like to play with?
- What does your child dislike?
- What are some things that cause a meltdown?
Finding the answer to these questions will put you on the right path. After figuring out the activities, theme, and food items, you can start thinking about how your child and guests can safely enjoy the birthday party.
Here are some tips you can use to create a sensory-friendly party.
Think About the Location
The location is the foundation for a successful party because children with autism depend on routine and familiar places. Think about your child’s comfort when choosing the party’s location.
Home is always the best option, especially if you are worried about going out. It's where your child feels more comfortable because it's where they can calm down—and where all the toys are.
You can even go to a relative's home if the child is comfortable with the place. A trusted family member will understand your child's challenges and support your little one throughout the party.
If you choose an outside venue, make sure the place is familiar. Usually, it doesn't end well if the child has never visited the area before. You can look for autism-friendly venues that allow children to explore the place at their own pace.
Whatever you decide, explain to your child on the autism spectrum what they should expect so they don't get overwhelmed. Use a visual schedule with pictures or social stories to help your little one understand what will happen and when. If you decide to go to a restaurant, it's best to plan a visit before the party so the child can get used to it—or arrive an hour early.
Set Guest Expectations
Setting guest expectations before the event is important because they might not be familiar with your child's needs. Let them know the "do's and don't" and allow friends and family to ask about autism, your child, and what to expect.
You can make them aware of sensory-friendly gifts, sensory needs (e.g., avoiding loud noises or surprises) or add helpful tips.
Choose the Guest List Carefully
You can also limit the party to a few party members and adjust the number of people as the child gets older. You are not obligated to invite everyone your child knows, but choose the ones closest to them, like from their speech therapy group.
Here are some things to consider:
- Size of the venue. If you hold the party in a small space, invite your child's closest friends, so it's not crowded and overwhelming.
- How well the guests know the child. Does the guest know what your child likes or dislikes? While they don’t need to know everything about your kid, include some basic things in the invitation.
- How well the guests understand autism. For example, parents of children with autism will understand when their child needs a break or if they need to stop.
What If No Guests Come to the Party?
If you invite the entire class, several kids probably won't show up. Consider inviting close family members or friends your child has a close relationship with instead of a bunch of kids that are not close to your child on the autism spectrum.
Avoid an empty venue by inviting people that sincerely care about your little one. Another strategy you can use is inviting people of similar age that live nearby. Just make sure there are people that care.
Choose the Food Wisely
Selecting the right food is for your child, not for everyone else. Some children on the autism spectrum need sensory-friendly foods, and it can be stressful when a family member encourages your child to eat ice cream when they don't like it.
In the end, it's simple: if your child likes pizza, let them eat pizza. Don't overthink the decision, but make the guests know on the invitation that food is limited or that you are not serving food.
Choose the Outfit
Autistic children feel calm when they know what to expect, even clothing. Don't force your child into a shirt they don't like just because it's their birthday. If your child wants a new outfit, buy the clothes earlier and let them try them on ahead of time. This way, you make sure they feel comfortable in them. Textures are important for children with autism, so choose wisely.
Keep the Party Short
Your child's birthday party doesn't have to be traditional and up to others' expectations. It's all about your child, and it shouldn't provoke stress. Plan the party so it's fun and simple—it's about what your child likes, not what everyone else wants.
If your child's idea of a party is half an hour, the party should be half an hour, not hours long. You can let your guests know what to expect in the invitation or create a schedule. This way, nobody will be disappointed when it's time to leave.
A child with autism needs a sensory-friendly event, not a drawn-out and event-filled party. Have simple themes, a structured schedule, and low-key activities. It will get easier once you adapt the party to your kids' likes, patterns, and routines.
Think About Gift Time
This is an emotional tradition that kids with autism might not understand properly. Guests might be disappointed that your child is not expressing the proper reaction when opening gifts.
When it comes to gifts, you should consider the following:
- Clothing: You can give your guests the option to purchase your child's favorite clothing items as a gift.
- Sensory-friendly gifts: Sensory-friendly toys like fidgets and other calming toys can be the perfect gift for an autistic child.
- Time to open: You can leave (and it’s a good idea) gift-opening after the guests leave. The whole process can get overwhelming for your child. Or you can even opt for no gifts if you don’t want your child to be put on the spot.
Best Autism-Friendly Party Activities
Plenty of fun, sensory-friendly activities can keep your guests entertained. While there is no one-size-fits-all activity, you can try reaching out to other parents to find out what their children like. All children's individual needs are unique.
Here are some ideas:
- Sensory-friendly slime helps children with fine motor skills and can be very relaxing.
- Use water play activities that are easy to keep.
- If in a large space, you can use trampolines, obstacle courses, or a swing for running, jumping, climbing, or swinging. It helps with sensory sensitivities and promotes good physical health.
- Sensory-themed bins provide an opportunity for learning and exploring.
- Put on an exciting movie.
- Paint walls, an activity that can be done with a big sheet and lots of paints.
- Ring toss is a fun group activity that encourages participation without requiring it.
- Start a scavenger hunt that’s collaborative, not competitive.
Continue Reading: Fun Indoor Sensory Activities for Autistic Children.