Autism Question #6: How to survive birthday parties with autistic kids

How much of a disaster could one birthday party be? Let’s talk how to survive birthday parties with autistic kids.

Birthday parties can be long, loud, out-of-routine, unpredictable, social, boring and hangry times. So planning birthday parties with autistic kids means you want short, quiet, structured, small groups of people and of course, predictable favourite foods. And if you’re attending a birthday party with autistic kids, keep it short, find quiet spaces, bring preferred snacks and prepare in advance.

What’s the worst birthday party experience?

You can’t claim the parent badge without a disastrous birthday party story.

It starts with the disaster of not even getting an invite. Many autistic kids don’t have large social groups. But they are also less likely to be invited to birthday parties. One autistic child we know what invited to his first birthday party outside the family when he was 9 years old. And that was being invited to a birthday party of another autistic child in his class. So going out an experiencing birthday parties as an autistic child may not even be a regular event.

We’ve been to birthday parties where the food just wasn’t right. Living on a beige diet means there are limited’ safe foods’ that our child is happy to eat. It sucks when you’re at a party and none of the foods are those that you are comfortable eating. Even worse was one time when we went out to a play centre for a party. We had prepared our child in advance that the cafe had chips. This meant there was lunch to look forward to, it was predictable, and the food was going to be ok. When we got there, the cafe had no chips because they hadn’t had any potato supplies that week. So our child didn’t eat a thing. This meant they were hungry, grumpy, disappointed and tired by the end of of the party.

Other times the party hasn’t gone well because of the events planned. Some parties at homes are unstructured and expect the kids to ‘run along and play together’. This doesn’t go well with our autistic kids because they struggle to come up with a group plan and successfully navigate unstructured social play.

What does a perfect birthday party for autistic kids look like?

The perfect birthday party probably doesn’t exist, but there are certain features that make them more manageable for autistic kids.

Time: Keep it short

Our kids are better in the mornings, and start to get a little tired in the afternoons. This means morning parties are better as they have more social energy.

They don’t do well with long drawn out parties. 1 hour is enough for a play date. 2 hours is enough for a structured play party. 3 hours is too much. Knowing how long your kids can be social in play before draining their batteries is important. This can change too, especially if they’re tired, or already have low social batteries from earlier events.

People: Keep it small

Smaller groups of people are generally going to be better. It’s less crowded, hopefully less noisy, and it’s less people to try to get along with. If you can’t avoid being in a large group, having quiet spaces to retreat to or hideys to play independently in can work.

Sometimes having familiar environments are the best places for a party – this might be a home, or a local playground. Other times it might be okay to go out for a party if you can visit the place in advance and see what’s like.

Quiet spaces to retreat might include a room inside if the rest of the party is in a backyard. It could be a quiet area of a playground e.g. a sandpit when everyone else is playing on the swings. It could be going back to the car and sitting in the car with a parent to calm down, listen to music and talk about things before going back to the party.

Activities: Keep it structured

In our experience, having structured activities works better for our kids. It gives them a way to interact socially within a clear set of rules or guidelines. This includes things like

  • following a leader around an activity centre like Bounce, escape rooms or Circus
  • setting up activities like craft or painting that everyone does together
  • having non-competitive toys out like lego where they can play alongside each other
  • being in a playground, paddling pool or other area with clear knowledge around how to play there

When there are parties with ‘free play’, our kids either hide behind us because they don’t know how to start an interaction, or they end up in conflict because they can’t navigate a group plan, compromise, or use their flexible thinking to do something someone else suggests.

Food: Keep it familiar and safe

Parties generally have food. If there are strong food preferences or food avoidance, it is worth asking what favourite or preferred foods are for guests and providing those options. Packaged foods generally are more acceptable than homemade items, as packaged foods have a consistent and predictable taste and texture.

Planning: Keep them informed

Include kids in the planning. Let them pick who and what to do. If you’re attending a party, feel free to ask who else will be there, what sorts of activities, and what food is to be expected so you can prepare your child in advance. Talk about what are expected behaviours when you get to the party, during the party, and at the end. It might include setting up social stories around:

  • greeting the birthday child when you arrive, saying “Happy Birthday” and handing over the present.
  • listening to instructions for the activities and giving it a go.
  • if you’re not feeling comfortable, go find a parent – you can sit out of activities if you want.
  • wait until it’s time before helping yourself to food. There’s normally a time after activities when people all eat at parties.
  • wait until after singing and candles before the cake is cut and people can eat it. You can say “no thanks” if you don’t want a slice.
  • at the end, go up to the birthday child again and say “thank you” and “Happy Birthday” again before leaving.

The most successful birthday parties with autistic kids for us have included:

  • short and structured parties at activity centres (like Bounce) with a party leader and a small group of friends
  • short parties in playrounds with plenty of play equipment to use and natural places to explore, and preferred foods provided
  • the super casual favourite takeaway with family at home where you eat dinner then go home

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