There are many things you can do to make parties for your child with autism a wonderful experience.
I recently surveyed parents of children with autism on the challenges their kids have with parties. Suffice to say, there was a lot to say on that topic!
I also asked the parents what strategies have worked for them in making parties more successful for their child. I’ve coupled this advice together with what I know as a kid’s party planner who has worked for children on the spectrum (and as mum to a child with ASD also), to provide you with my top autism-friendly party planning tips.
Download a one-page checklist to create an autism friendly party for your child.
Of course, all children with autism are different, and some of these strategies may be useful for one child, but not another. You know your child best, so go with what you think will work for you.
Involve your child in planning their party
“I try to prepare my son as much in advance – I let him see the decorations I’m making, talk about what we are going to do at the party and who is going to be there.”
Children with autism can be upset by suprises or unfamiliarity. So involve your child in the planning process – including choosing the cake, venue, games and even decorations. It might help to create a timeline to discuss this a bit at a time, and break it down into steps with limited choices, to make the process less overwhelming.
Here is a free downloadable party planner that you can go through with your child. This is the tool that I use when planning my client’s parties, and it’s very detailed – so you wont’ forget a thing!
Choose a familiar venue
Many parent prefer to hold parties at home, as it’s the most comfortable environment for their child. If you’re choosing a venue outside the home, ideally go somewhere familiar. If you’re trying somewhere new, visit beforehand with your child. It might also be helpful to view photos of the venue or read about it online in the days leading up to the party, to remind them of what the space will be like.
Also think about using venues at off-peak times (such as weekday afternoons), or hiring a private party room within the venue.
Limit the number of guests
Lots of children with autism struggle around large groups of people. So limit your guest list, and keep in mind that parents are likely to stay for younger children’s parties (and may bring siblings, too). If you would rather there be no parents or siblings present, you may have to make that explicit. Have a chat to the parents when you hand out invites, or include a note in the invitation, along these lines: ‘We’re really looking forward to seeing Annie at Casey’s party! Because Casey feels uncomfortable in a crowd (or ‘because we have limited space’), we respectfully ask you to drop Annie off and pick her up again at 4pm. She’ll be well looked after! If you have any concerns about this, please call and let’s chat.’
Alternatively, you might designate a space for the parents to congregate, to keep the party area less busy.
Stick to your party end time
You’ll have a good idea of how much fun your child can handle! Put a fixed party finish time on your invitation, and don’t be embarrassed to guide your guests to stick to it. Start handing out party favours and thanking people for coming to wind things up, or if you’d like to be more subtle, ask a close friend or family member to start the leaving process.
Have a designated safe space
“I have a ‘no go’ zone. My son has a lego room.We put up a baby gate and he’s the only one allowed in there when other children are around.”
Knowing they have a space to retreat can really help lessen your child’s anxiety. In your own house, it might be the child’s own bedroom. Put up a sign saying ‘off limits’ or ‘for Casey only.’ If you’re going to a venue, speak to the management to identify a quiet space that can be used, and show your child the space in advance. Let them know they can retreat there any time they need, or discuss what they can say to you if they are starting to feel overwhelmed.
Avoid known triggers
When planning your party, take time to mentally step through the whole party and identify any known triggers. Plan how you’ll avoid them. For example, some kids on the spectrum are terrified by balloons. They’re such a natural part of parties that it’s easy to forget and accidentally include them in your decoration or games.
If you’re heading out to a venue or have a party planner or entertainer coming to you, make sure you mention any triggers to them. Otherwise, they may just pull out a balloon because they don’t know any different.
Get the birthday cake just right
A surprising number of parents have told me that the birthday cake causes issues for their child – if it isn’t exactly what the child wanted, or is revealed as a surprise, their child has become really distressed. So get the birthday child involved in choosing their own cake…and pay attention to the details of their request! Writing things down, or referring to photos, could be a good idea.
Avoid competitive party games
Many children with autism struggle with the competitive nature of most party games. They are not always good at waiting, taking turns or not being the winner. So it may be best to avoid competitive games, or to limit them to ones you can talk about and practice in advance.
The ways in which I reduce the competition factor in the parties that I run are:
- Run non-competitive activities (such as crafts, science experiments)
- Change the aim of the game to be non-competitive
- Make everyone a winner
Here’s a blog post on non-competitive party games, which explains these concepts, and provides lots of activity examples.
Ditch the structure
“Our parties can’t be too structured e.g. just free play . There’s only a short break for food, and no expectations to do anything really.”
Some children are unable to stick with a particular activity for any length of time, or generally prefer to play independently. Sitting down to eat the party food can also be a challenge.
For these kids, a non-structured party might work best. I’m a big fan of setting up self-directed activity stations, such as craft, playdoh or lego stations, sensory tubs, and having play equipment available (if there’s no equipment on site, consider hiring some in).
And having some food available for self-serve, or keeping the formal eating time very short, may also be helpful.
“I have a table set up throughout the party with available drinks and snacks so kids who need time away from all the activities can chill out, have a drink and snack, and return to the activities at their leisure.”
If you think it will help your child, write a schedule (or create a visual schedule) for the party and run through it in advance. You can even go so far as to go through the rules for your planned activities. You might also be able to find video footage or photos of your planned activities online.
Keep these materials handy on party day, in case you’d like to refer to them throughout the party.
You might also like to practice your planned activites in advance. I ran one party where the child had sensitivites about touching messy things, but we wanted to play a game involving slime. So he practiced it beforehand with his mum in the low-pressure environment of home, and decided that yes, he could handle the slime OK. He had great fun sliming things on party day!
Control the pace of presents
Some kids find receiving presents all at once to be overstimulating. If this is the case, set up a special basket or table for guests to leave their presents at, and then control the pace at which they get opened. For example, you might agree with your child to wait until the party is finished before opening the presents, and do so at the pace of a few each day.
Let people know about your child’s special needs
“We talk to friends and family beforehand. Keep it small and special. Say it’s ok not to sing Happy Birthday. My sister sang ‘we love you’ at the last birthday and my son thought that was a funny twist. Go for creative and loving solutions.”
OK, as mum to a child with autism, I know talking about it can be hard. There are so many occasions where it would be helpful to tell people around me about my child’s special needs…and yet, I trip over the words. But as a party planner, I am so thankful when a parent tells me what their child’s needs are. It gives me an opportunity to do my best for them, and to create a really successful event.
So, if it’s going to help your child enjoy his special day, I say tell those people that can help make accommodations – venue managers, entertainers, possibly your guests. Be specific about what you need, as kids with autism are all so different. So instead of just saying ‘my child has autism’ it’s helpful to say ‘my child has autism and can be overwhelmed if there’s too much noise. It would be really helpful if you could turn off your sound system.’ Or perhaps you need to tell your family not to be offended as your child won’t be giving hugs.
“We told people to check with us before buying a gift that has sounds.”
My personal experience has been that most people want to help accommodate my child. And if they don’t? Then having them at your party is not going to be a good idea anyway…and it’s handy to know that in advance!
Let go of your own perfect party dream
My job is to plan perfect parties, and my clients really love to do the same. But when your child has special needs, you’ve got to make accommodations…or incur the wrath (or should I say meltdown?). It just might be the case that you can’t invite everyone you want, because your child will be overwhelmed. Or you can’t play the party games you loved when you were young, because your child is not yet able to handle structure, complex rules or competitiveness. Perhaps your child will eat all the decorations (don’t laugh, that’s my child we’re talking about!). But ultimately, we need to change our notion of success from one of a party that looks great on social media, or that wows the extended family, to one that’s perfect for our unique child.
And on party day, I’m sure I’m preaching to the converted when I say that you need to remain flexible in your plans, even if your child is a lover of fixed notions and routine. As an ‘autism mum’ myself, I know that things go haywire most often when I’m trying to stick to my plans and my child has other ideas. While the party is running, if your child is getting stressed about something, you need to go with the flow and adapt accordingly. They are in a high stress environment, and their ability to adapt is going to be severely impaired. You are in a better position to change as needed.
Autism friendly party checklist
Download a one-page checklist to create a successful party for your child with autism.