How to host an inclusive birthday party (when your child is neurotypical):
- Invite everyone -that’s what inclusion is. If the whole class of 25-30 kids is too many, invite the whole subset: all the kids on the team, all the kids in the Sunday school class, all the kids in the play or all the kids in the neighborhood, etc.
- Give details of the party in the invitation – the more that is known the more successful it can be – having a pet farm come? Include the animals that will be present. Having a magician come? Let that be known. Playing group games in the backyard? Which games?
- Create a schedule and stick to it – send it ahead of time if possible.
- Have a visual schedule in each space you’ll use.
- Have a quiet space available for children who need quiet time during the party.
- Be aware of over stimulation – prevent loud noises (balloon popping games or screaming) or bright flashing lights (strobe lights)
- Be non-judgemental (it won’t ruin your child’s birthday party if someone has a meltdown unless you ruin it with your response)
- Invite them again even if last year’s didn’t work out
- For group games – don’t have children form their own groups – see here for a list of creative ways to divide into groups
- Have a variety of food options – students with autism often have specific dietary needs or preferences
- Open gifts after the party or consider having the children bring a book to give away to a local charity. It’s a great way to teach the virtue of philanthropy. Does your child really need more toys?
How to host an inclusive birthday party (when your child has autism or a related learning difference):
- All the above, plus you get to add a few more safety features into your birthday party:
- Choose a high interest area for a theme. This is the right time for everyone to indulge in all of the birthday person’s preferred activities.
- Invite all the children from a group with which he or she is familiar – maybe from occupational therapy or the resource room at school. It’s particularly helpful if all the guests are people who will be very understanding and compassionate when the birthday person needs to take a break — even if the birthday person needs to stop the party abruptly and send everyone home.
- Plan a relatively short party. 60-90 minutes at the longest. One hour of fun is better than risking a longer afternoon with the chance of unhappy, over-stimulated children.
- Find a familiar location – A birthday party is not a good time to introduce a new environment to the birthday person. For this reason, home is often the best location for a sensory-friendly party.
- Consider an alternative to treats – sugar highs are not always the best for children working on their self-regulation skills. Carrot sticks, fruit slices, or italian ice can be just as celebratory as cake and ice cream.
- Practice, plan, and rehearse greeting guests and being gracious. “Thank you for coming to my party and thank you for the gift.” Use a Social Story™.
Attending another child’s birthday party:
- Ask to arrive a few minutes early to acclimate your child to the environment and to see how he or she reacts to the environment and the excitement.
- Let your child know they can leave and it’s okay, if the environment becomes too overwhelming. Stay with your child and leave with him before things fall apart. A short good time is much better than leaving after a meltdown. Have a treat/surprise in the car waiting for your child, so he or she isn’t too disappointed at leaving before everyone else.
- Prepare for the party by visiting the location and planning out the day. Talk about all the people who will be there, what you will do at the party and most importantly ask the host for a quiet place to go if your child begins to feel overwhelmed and/or over stimulated.
- Explain to the birthday child’s parents that you want to be available to support your child at this party and how you plan to do it. It is never a good idea to simply drop your child off at a birthday party and expect that he or she will have fun.
- It is a good idea to prepare a Social Story™ to prepare for a birthday party. With cell phones and the computer technology, you can put together a pretty good Social Story™ using actual photos of the places and the people who will be at the party.