Let’s Plan a Party!
by Kate E. Reynolds
Autism Asperger’s Digest | November/December 2013
Over the past few months, I’ve been decorating my home. The piece of advice one receives whenever undertaking this task is “it’s all in the preparation.” So, despite my inclination to reach for the brushes and paint, I’ve had to settle for soap and sponges.
And the link with autism?
As we march toward the holiday season, we can either dread the effects the festivities will have on our children, or we can be prepared. Lack of routine, surprises, and sensory overload can cause meltdowns. Follow these tips about how to prepare for parties and you’ll cut meltdowns to a minimum and inject a bit of social education into your child’s life, too!
Make Your Invitations Visual
Many kids on the spectrum are extremely visually acute, so use this to your advantage! If you’re organizing a party, make the invitation a descriptive story so that all guests know what to expect. Individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) crave predictability and find it calming in what can be an alarming world; this is particularly true of party situations. Your invitations can include a schedule pinpointing games that will be played and when food will be served. If there’s unusual equipment, like a particular bounce house or character, enclose a photograph. This is especially appropriate at Christmas when even neurotypical (NT) children can find the Bearded Man in Red daunting.
Set Up for Sensory Success
Anticipate sensory assaults. Your guests might find a party to be a complete assault on their senses. The greatest culprits at parties tend to be unexpected loud noises, such as bursting balloons, other kids screaming, or fireworks. Some party events can be scary to kids who are highly visual—for example, the magician who makes someone disappear or apparently pulls a coin out of another child’s ear. Other obvious sensory issues involve smells that we might consider fragrances but which can overwhelm a child with sensory sensitivities.
Prep party attendees in advance. The challenge for you as the host is to accommodate what could be a vast array of sensory issues. Much of this can be overcome using simple measures, such as sensitizing entertainers to the needs of their audience, or by warning spectrum kids of what is going to happen ahead of time in the invitation. This should include when guests will be eating. For younger or less socially developed children, parents can then adapt their routines to incorporate a different time for having a meal on the day of the party. Indicating on the invitation how many other guests are invited is useful information for kids who have difficulty with crowds.
Provide a quiet area. This is a crucial part of managing every party because it offers kids a place to retreat to as necessary, so anxiety levels can be reduced, and they can return to try the party experience again. Recently, I read a couple of articles criticizing the concept of quiet areas as a means of removing upset children from situations, thereby marginalizing them. If used constructively, quiet areas can provide a temporary sanctuary with the specific purpose of enabling a child to be reintroduced to what had been a difficult situation. If one specific game or activity is known to distress a child, parents can remove that child in advance, then return afterward. A little note of caution: it’s best not to include a computer in any quiet area or you may not get a previously distressed child away from it to rejoin the party!
Choose Activities Carefully
Accessibility. It’s a good idea to select activities carefully to accommodate the least able guest. Physical challenges are obvious; you wouldn’t include musical chairs if one of your spectrum guests had grossly poor proprioception (muscle, joint, ligament, tendon coordination). Difficulties might arise with different sensory or cognitive needs. For example, can all your guests access and process information about activities? One-to-one support may be all-important to ensure that each kid is included.
Variety. If you are having a party that revolves around one activity, such as swimming, ensure that all guests are able to participate. This may sound patronizing, but my son attended such a party where one kid sat at the side of the pool throughout. And why did her parents allow this? This girl received so few invites to social events that they didn’t want her to miss out and thought she might be uninvited or the hosts might have to reorganize the entire party if they admitted she was scared of swimming.
Transitions. Transitioning from one activity or game to the next will be easier if you have a schedule of activities on the wall, which mirrors what you said on the invitations, showing the sequence of what will happen. In addition, counting down at 10 minutes—then 5 minutes—before a game finishes will enable children to engage in the ending and lessen the likelihood of emotional outbursts, especially if a child has particularly enjoyed an activity. Sometimes a specific routine to show a game is ending helps, such as a sound or piece of music to signal the end. Just make sure you don’t employ an ear-piercing screech as your signal!
Allow for 1:1 Support
To ensure inclusion of all your guests, allocating someone to help each child who needs support on a 1:1 basis is a
great idea. This also ensures that any kids who have a tendency to run away or wander are closely monitored and any signs of distress are spotted early before emotions run too high. Many autism parents are acclimatized to staying throughout any social events their kids attend. But nothing makes a party run more smoothly than a bunch of volunteers. Think about asking a local high school if students might like to volunteer in exchange for the experience and free food. You could do a short awareness-raising session about autism and assure them they won’t have responsibility for a child; they are just there to help out.
Personalize Party Favors
Parties for NT kids have party favors or bags. There’s no reason why parties for kids with ASD can’t as well—with a few cautionary measures.
- Give out party bags or favors.
- Find out each child’s special interest and cater to that.
- Account for the developmental level of each child. Avoid toys with small parts, if necessary.
- Account for medical conditions such as pica (consuming inedible objects) or epilepsy.
- Give out identical party favors to each child—we can do this at other parties, but our guests are very individual, as we all know!
Social gatherings offer opportunities for spectrum kids to develop skills. And parties, especially, give parents the chance to predict challenges and solutions. With preparation, parties can be a pleasure for kids and parents alike. Using the tips outlined in this article will help ease children into this world of fun and learning!
Kate Reynolds is an autism mother and has written two Jessica Kingsley Publisher books: Party Planning for Children and Teens on the Autism Spectrum (2012) and Sexuality and Severe Autism: A Practical Guide for Parents, Caregivers, and Health Educators (2013). She blogs at www.autismagonyaunt.com.
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