Ballerina’s and Music Man’s birthday was approaching. They were going to be 5 years old. They had never had a birthday party. They had never even BEEN to a birthday party (outside of the family). Big Brother had been having birthday parties since he turned 3. This year, I felt THEY deserved a party. I mean “5” is a pretty significant number — they’ll be starting kindergarten in September, they are a whole hand, half a decade, however you choose to look at it. But how do you plan a birthday party for children who are autistic?
One important word. PLANNING. It takes a LOT of PLANNING. Activities, music, who to invite, what food to serve, etc. It all has to be taken into account. And being the “nervous nellie” mother that is in me to be, guess who’s going to be doing all that planning? ME!!!!
Well, in order to make it a little easier, we decided to have their birthday in a place that was used to hosting kids’ birthday parties…..The Little Gym. There happens to be one near us (about a 10 minute drive) where Big Brother and Ballerina have been taking classes for the last 4 years. When I first started thinking about this a few months ago, I asked one of the managers what she thought — I mean, we were going to be inviting their classmates. Other than Big Brother, we were talking upwards of 20 autistic preschoolers (of varying degrees) and one typical 6.5 year old. Is that something they were prepared to handle? And her answer was a slightly hesitant “Yes”. I promised her that I would ask that every child there be accompanied by an adult who knew the child well (parents, most likely). After promising that, she said they could definitely do it. So, we made the decision to try it and booked a time.
Every since then, we tried to think of everything that would affect the party. Because these two kids both LOVE “The Laurie Berkner Band”, the gym encouraged us to bring a CD with some of the favorite songs and they would incorporate those into the party. We chose what activities they were going to have available for the kids to play, including the “Air Track” (which was a very difficult decision). We tried to anticipate any potential problems to reduce the likelihood of meltdowns, not only in Ballerina and Music Man, but in their friends as well. We invited all of their friends from school and from dance class and we hoped that people would come. Overall, five of their friends came to the party (plus my three kids). Eight is a good number. And, as we requested, every child was accompanied by an adult who knew them and who could address any issues that came up throughout the party.
The gym was as good as their word. Not only did the have the Laurie Berkner Band songs playing in the background, but they built their activities around the songs. For example, they marched around the gym singing “We Are The Dinosaurs” and acting out the bits of the song. This really helped draw some of these kids into the activities. But, of course, not all of them. The gym staff didn’t mind though. As long as the kids were following reasonable safety rules (being enforced by the accompanying parents), they were allowed to explore and just be free. Music Man was kind of between the two. He didn’t want to be with the group. But he wanted to dance to the songs. So, he did them on his own, staying just slightly off from the group. I called it a success. He was doing it…..it was parallel play!!!!
The problem is, you can never anticipate everything. We knew that. And that’s what we were afraid of. And we were including that Air Track, which we knew was going to potentially cause some of these kids problems. You see, the Air Track is VERY noisy. It’s basically a “Bounce House” without the house. It’s just a long inflated mat that the kids can jump and tumble on. In order to keep it inflated, the fan is running the whole time it’s in use which can cause a lot of children distress, especially children with sensory issues as many children on the spectrum experience. We actually know that Music Man HATES the Air Track (but Ballerina LOVES it). And we knew that we would have at least one transition from the gym to the party room for cake, which again, can cause problems for autistic children.
Before pulling out the Air Track, the person running the party explained this to the parents. She described the noise and told parents to feel free to take their child into the waiting area if they felt it would be too much for their kids to handle. As soon as the Air Track was pulled out, Ballerina jumped on, all ready to go. Music Man ran out to the waiting area to view the books and brochures. When we turned the Air Track on, most of the kids stayed and participated and we opened the door so that the two kids (including Music Man) who stepped out could hear the noise and make their own decisions. One of these boys came back in once it was fully inflated, called it a “Vacuum”, and joined in the fun. Music Man, on the other hand, stayed in the lobby until the Air Track was “All Done”. But he did come back to stomp the air out so it could be put away.
Finally, we had to transition them from the gym into the party room. They offered every child two shakers to shake as they marched from one room to the other. By making this a game, they all went with enthusiasm. They were all given the opportunity to sing “Happy Birthday” and share in the cake. And no one cared that these kids didn’t want to stay in their seats. No one cared that these kids were more interested in spreading icing on the tablecloth. They were there. And they were smiling and laughing and having fun. And all us parents were just so happy that our kids got to do something that all kids should get to do…..go to a birthday party!!!!!
It was an incredible experience. I am so happy (and relieved) that we decided to take the plunge and do this! My kids had fun. And I believe that their guests did as well. If you are planning a party for your autistic child, here’s my suggestion to you. Think everything through. Plan carefully, but be extremely flexible. As Autism Parents know, things rarely go as planned. Parties are no exception. Just roll with the punches and keep an open mind and a positive attitude.
My name is Ilene and I’m a happily married stay-at-home-mom to 3 wonderful children. My eldest is a typically developing 6 year old first grader. I also have a set of girl/boy twins who are recently turned 5, both diagnosed with Classic Autism. My daughter has also been diagnosed with ADHD.