Children's birthday cake

A child’s birthday party can be stressful for any parent. Keeping tabs on dozens of over excited kids is not everyone’s idea of a relaxing Saturday. But as parents we do it as they bring so much joy to our children, as well as creating those family memories that last a lifetime. When it comes to autism and birthday parties, while the challenges can be more difficult, the rewards can be even greater. 

So to help you with your party planning, here are five autism friendly birthday party ideas.

Firstly, why can parties be difficult for children with ASD? 

Children’s parties have a lot of sensory stimulation as well as unfamiliar social norms, which children with autism can find overwhelming. Loud music, shouting and singing happy birthday all have the potential to cause sensory overload.

Then there are both the explicit and implicit rules that kids need to follow when playing party games, which again can be a struggle. 

And while parties are a great way for kids to learn how to socialize outside of the structures of school, this adds further stress to those that struggle with communication.

But careful planning can help you throw an autism friendly birthday party which avoids many of these problems. 

1. Keep it small and brief            

Possibly the most important piece of advice is to start small. If this is the first birthday party you’re throwing for your child, then maybe just invite a couple of friends. Parents often feel like they need to invite the whole class, or to reciprocate any invitations their child has previously received. But you need to do what works best for your child, and other parents will understand this.   

Or you may feel more comfortable only inviting a few family members that your child has a close bond with, such as grandparents and cousins. Then, as your child gets a bit older, you can start inviting a few school friends.

As well as keeping the guest list small, it’s also a good idea to keep the running time brief. Plan this around your child’s attention span and energy levels. If you think just half an hour of activities and half an hour for food is sufficient, then that’s fine. 

2. Pick a suitable location    

Next you need to consider where the most suitable birthday party location is. Do you think your child would feel most comfortable in the familiar environment of the home, or would they get more enjoyment from their big day at another location?

If you decide to go somewhere such as a restaurant or indoor play center, it can help if your child is already familiar with the place. Doing a “practice run” the week before can also be a wise move, as it prepares them for what to expect. Even little things like knowing where the bathrooms are or where the table will be can help with the preparation. And some party venues now host sensory friendly days, such as Chuck E Cheese.

3. Carefully plan the activities 

The birthday activities you choose will of course be based on your child’s interests and ability (after all, you know you child your best!). But generally speaking, activities that have lots of rules, turn taking, or loud noises can pose the biggest challenges. So things like musical chairs or pass the parcel may be best avoided. 

Therefore, focus on what your child enjoys playing with. For example, if your child loves playing with Lego, the main activity could be unstructured play time with Lego. Or if your child likes to try their hand in the kitchen, you could do a make your own pizza topping activity. 

4. Decide the best approach for gift giving  

The ceremony that comes with accepting and opening gifts can be tough for some kids. Again, you’ll know best how your child responds to gift opening, but it’s common for many children with ASD to become overwhelmed by being the center of attention. Therefore, some families prefer to save the gifts and open them later with just the immediate family present. While other families ask that guests don’t bring gifts.

5. Consider treat alternatives

We all know the problems that come with too many sugary foods and drinks. Therefore try and substitute traditional party snacks for healthy alternatives. Fruit and carrot sticks always make a great alternative, as does diluted natural fruit juice. And a birthday cake isn’t mandatory either. If for example you feel your child would prefer ice cream, then do that instead. 

And remember, don’t feel pressure to have a “traditional” party

As with Christmas and the holidays, parents can often feel pressure to throw a “traditional” birthday party for their little ones. But as any parent of a child with ASD knows, autism and birthday parties need to be carefully planned and considered. After all, it’s about doing something your child will enjoy, rather than doing what others might expect.

For more autism resources for families in New Jersey, visit our blog directory. Or if you would like to find out more about the ABA services we provide to children with autism, you can get in touch here.

Featured image photo by Joshua Hoehne on Unsplash

Estee Rothstein BCBA, Executive Director at Golden Care Therapy

Estee Rothstein BCBA, Executive Director at Golden Care Therapy

Estee Rothstein is the Executive Director of Golden Care Therapy. She is a Board-Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) with a master’s degree in Education. A proud mom of six, Estee brings her unique parenting perspective to her long career working with children with autism that spans more than 20 years. Outside of running her business, Estee also provides advice and consultancy to other professionals working in the field, and is a frequent speaker and writer on a range of autism topics.