Coping with Birthday Parties: Tips for Parents of Kids on the Autism Spectrum

"My autistic son (high functioning) will be turning 6 next week. We are considering having a birthday party for him and inviting a few of his neighborhood friends over. However, in times past, he has not done well with all the hustle and bustle that comes with 'partying'. Do you have any ideas about how we can have a better experience this time so that things don't result in a meltdown?"

Exciting times like Christmas, Thanksgiving, and birthdays are all a time to share our joy and happiness with our families and friends. We all have fond memories of our own childhood when we looked forward to putting up the decorations, eating mouth watering meals, and receiving all those longed for presents.

As moms and dads, we naturally want our kids to enjoy it all  and have as much fun as we did. So we talk, anticipate, and prepare with mounting excitement as the child's birthday draws nearer. 
However, for those parents who are raising a youngster with ASD or High-Functioning Autism, it often adds up to an almighty headache! Why? Because these "special needs" kids can have a real hard time coping with all of excitement and anticipation.

Anticipation for a child on the autism spectrum leads to increased levels of anxiety, which he can't control. He becomes overloaded, and then you have a massive meltdown at the time when you are all supposed to be enjoying and celebrating his birthday! The party is often ruined and everybody upset, especially your son who is trying so hard to fit in and be like everybody else.

==> How to Prevent Meltdowns and Tantrums in Children with ASD

So how can you achieve the impossible and enjoy the occasion while at the same time keeping your son calm and behaving appropriately?
  1. The first simple step to take is to simply reduce the time talking about the joyous occasion. Remember, your son can't easily control his emotions, and to chatter constantly about the event will simply lead to stress and anxiety. It is also useful to enlist the help of others in your home in this and keep any conversations to a minimum while your son is around.
  2. Another great strategy to help is to keep any physical changes to your home to the minimum. So by all means decorate, put up balloons, and have cake, but just don’t make a big fuss about it all.
  3. Also, don't put out any presents until the day they are to be opened, because your son will have a hard time keeping his hands off and will became anxious and potentially defiant.
  4. Although it’s important not to overload your son, it is equally important to explain any changes to his routines. So prepare him for any changes by calmly telling him the day before what will be happening. Visual supports always work well, so use photos or simple pictures to explain what will be happening.
  5. It is also important to explain to your son what is expected of him (e.g., to say 'hello, how are you' to guests and sit at the table to share the birthday cake).
  6. Your son will also need to be given permission to leave the festivities if he starts to get out-of-control, and you can rehearse this together with some simple role play. This is really important as it gives him an exit strategy and also allows him to get through the party without going into meltdown. Additionally, if you see that your son is becoming distressed, you can activate an "exit cue" so he gets out before the situation deteriorates.

Following these simple steps should lead to a much more positive experience for everyone and will provide your child with the love, support, reassurance - and above all confidence - to participate fully in his birthday celebration.

Resources for parents of children and teens on the autism spectrum:

==> Videos for Parents of Children and Teens with ASD

Comments from Parents:

•    Anonymous said... My 12 yr old Aspie son HATES parties. He doesn't even like for us to sing Happy Birthday to him, he starts crying - yet he loves music class at school. Go figure. We've had his birthday parties at his favorite places - bowling, mini-golf, Chuck E. Cheese, etc. He hated it. So we tried to have one at home and invited over only his best friend and his family. Can we say meltdown?!? He turns 13 this coming November and I really wanted to celebrate it, but he says PLEASE, no party. Soooooooooooo.... no party. I really feel that it's because most Aspies crave/require structure, and parties, by nature, are anything but structured.

•    Anonymous said... i completely sympathize here! we try to have parties for our now 9 year old and this year we decided against if finally because of how worked up he gets and he never enjoys it :(

•    Anonymous said... Our son loves museums so when he turned 10 we gave him the choice of a big party, or taking his cousins and going to the museum with just the 3 of them. He chose the museum and they all had a great time. It was a wonderful alternative to a stressful party.

•    Anonymous said... My son used to cry when we sang Happy Birthday. We've tried big birthday parties where we have gotten maybe three kids there from an entire class. This year we are doing a party but a very small one and will just invite the people he is closest to.

•    Anonymous said... Who says a party has to be big? Invite 2 or 3 friends. Plan an activity they will all enjoy. Could be a board game or a craft or even a video game. The point is to have fun. Maybe try cupcakes instead of a cake and not too many decorations. Sometimes less is more !

•    Anonymous said... Ask him what he wants. Maybe a day with mom and dad that he can plan with you would be awesome. Dad could cook his favorite breakfast (or go out if it's possible), then mom could do an activity with him. Then for dinner have his fave people there. My aspie thinks so different than I do, sometimes he has an idea of fun that I would never think of.

•    Anonymous said... We keep Julian's parties simple.. Not a lot of other kids because all the noise can cause a meltdown.. We keep it to one activity, cake and presents. Also we talk to him about it in advance.

•    Anonymous said... We did my boys film parties (luckily we have a projector in the house) so set up a few chairs, invited a few friends and did cinema food, got the boys to pick the film and they sat and watched. That way they had friends round, it was their party, but in familiar surroundings and without lots of noise and excitement :-)

•    Anonymous said... Holidays are especially stressful and equal more meltdowns... thanks for the tips!

•    Anonymous said... We've learned to change our opinion on what makes a b-day special. Why freak a kid out on their own b-day?? Ask what THEY want to do, and do that. The day is about joy and love, not balloons, clowns, crowds and cake. Follow their lead and let them determine what will make them happy.

•    Anonymous said... My son is five and we are in line for him to be evaluated for aspergers. We saw 1 woman who didn't even talk to him and just asked us a few questions and was ready to diagnose him based on a few things we said. Anyway, he has always been very afraid of people singing happy birthday, not only at his parties but at anyone's birthday. If we are going to a bday party he asks us in advance if they will be singing happy birthday and to tell them to whisper. Other than that though, he loves birthday parties as long as their isn't a lot of loud noise.

•    Anonymous said... I agree with other posters. We have split up celebrations thruout the week. She wants cupcakes @ school-early dinner (avoid crowds) @ her choice place. We have same 2 friends over for a fun day with same activities for last 2 yrs. It bores me but they have fun! So be it!

•    Anonymous said... Let him decide what he would like to do. There are so many fun things to do to celebrate his birthday without adding in needless stress for him.

•    Anonymous said... We just had DS's 7th birthday and it went really well. We kept it short and structured, at home and only a few friends that he picked. Each boy got a Lego race car to build, then they all went outside with their cars and chalk to draw roads and play with them, then we had cupcakes and opened presents. Quick, predictable and manageable :)

•    Anonymous said... Pick a place or a theme that your child likes. For my son's ninth birthday, we knew there was a robotics learning store that he loves going to. They offer birthday party packages that included most of food, supplies and entertainment. Our son loved it because it was a place he was familiar with and knew the staff. It was an activity that he loved doing....so he felt comfortable. The other kids and their parents all loved it because they had never heard or it, thought the robots were cool, and it was easy. Most of the dads that came seemed to have as much fun as their sons. It worked well.

Post your comment below…

No comments:

Raising Kids with Autism Spectrum Disorder: Parents' Grief and Guilt

Some parents grieve for the loss of the youngster they   imagined  they had. Moms and dads have their own particular way of dealing with the...