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Autism: Birthday Party or No Birthday Party? March 10, 2010

Posted by hopeauthority in Autism, Children, Family, Parenting, special needs.
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Well, it’s that time of the year again. Time to plan Fabio’s birthday party. He wants an indoor pool party (we still have snow here).

And I won’t even get into how bothered I am by the fact that he’s turning EIGHT. Where did all that time go? And yet, sometimes it feels like he should be 20 because he’s been 2 for about 10 years…

As I was making out the short guest list, I realized that only one of the kids who had autism had had a party of his own and even that kid just had one or two. And its not a financial thing. The moms, all of whom I know well and for at least 3 years, offer these reasons:

1. He doesn’t “get”  the birthday party concept, so why spend the time and money?

2. He doesn’t “get” the presents thing.

3. He doesn’t interact with his peers, so why bother if he won’t even notice anyone’s there.

4. I can’t predict how he’ll behave on that day and if he’s “off”, then it’ll all be a waste.

5. I’m tired of family or friends complaining that he doesn’t come up to them. They don’t get it and I have no patience.

6. He won’t know what he’s missing.

On one hand, I can relate to a lot of what they feel. And yet, even with hesitation, I booked the party today. For this Saturday. (Not too last minute, right?)

Maybe I’m just wishful, but I think Fabio does understand that kids should have a birthday celebration. And I think I’d be sad if the only cake was the one at the dinner table with just the four of us. Is it just that I can’t let the dream of typical die? Maybe. And I’d beat myself up with Italian guilt if I did actually hurt his feelings by not having a party with his peers. But that’s me and it’s what I hope is right for my son.

I’d love to know what others think about having traditional birthday parties for their autistic kids. Do you or don’t you? Do you do it only for your typical kids? And what about the guests: a mix of typical and special needs children or not? What kind of party do you have (ie pool, bowling, etc.)?

Share your thoughts here.

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Comments»

1. brandy mello - April 30, 2010

i have only had family b-day parties for my son. this year i decided to invite his friends (i asked my son if he wanted to invite his school friends, all autistic, or his soccer friends, all typical). he said his soccer friends. we are having a pool party because he loves to swim and it will take place after a soccer game. there are 9 kids to invite and im figuring no more than half will show – saturdays are busy this time of year. i will be heartbroken if no one shows although im not sure he will care as long as he gets his pinata he’s been asking for. how did your party turn out?

2. hopeauthority - May 3, 2010

Brandy:Sorry I didn’t get back to you sooner. I hope your party went well and the pinata was a hit! (Get it?!)
If your son was able to choose his guests, I bet he’s close enough to typical that the kids he chose would want to come. My son is not quite there yet. But its the parents who you have to worry about.

If someone was having typical kids to a special needs party, I’d suggest reaching out to the guests’ parents in advance and nicely explaining to them how you are not inviting many kids and how important it is that their child come if he says he will, since its hard to explain no shows to a special needs child. (Of course, special needs parents generally jump at an invite to a party…even though actually going through with it can be stressful…since the invites are sometimes few and far between.)

In these days of over-booked social activities for kids, sometimes old-fashioned manners…like RSVPing timely and actually showing up if you said you would…are hard to find.

My party (and the one before mine) was a nightmare from my viewpoint due to numerous problems with the staff in charge of pool parties at World Gym in East Setauket, NY. My son and his guests had a good time, but he would have even if he was swimming in a big puddle. As long as he can swim, he’s fine.

Even with the argument after everyone left and the reduction in the bill, I was still boiling at the lack of sensitivity to the special needs guests (after being assured of their great training) and the scheduling snafus that melded consecutive parties. Ugh.

It’s part of the reason I didn’t get back on the blog to discuss it! But I bet yours went well. Swimming after a hot soccer game sounds great!

3. Helen Barron - May 24, 2010

My little guy (2) is autistic and I give him a birthday party every year. I know he doesn’t understand but why should i make him miss out on what is his special day. All my friends kids come and his cousins and they all know and love him for who he is and don’t care if he has time out inside doing his laps. I took him to a play cafe last year where all the other kids played and he was happy to just walk around the place and hide out in the baby area. We did a birthday cake and all and he finally understands that means he has to blow the candles. If he never had a party how would he ever learn.

This year we are having a farm barn come to our house because he will love it and that’s all that matters….

hopeauthority - September 30, 2011

Helen I love your attitude. What a lucky boy you have. Its so important to “get it” and you do already…it takes many moms longer to see whats important so soon after a diagnosis. Please keep having the parties that are right for him, not for the guests (they’ll adapt). How’d the barn party go? I laugh because my son would not enjoy that one…he is sentsitive to smell and hates farm animal smells. If he’d been there he’d have been politely distant from the animals and wehn asked if he wanted to pet the goat would have said “No thank you.”

4. Lavern Owie - September 30, 2010

i also have a son who has the same case. he was diagnosed mild autism when he was 2 years old. yeah, i love celebrating my son’s birthday. schooling at a mainstreaming school, mixed special and normal kids. i always prefer to have a basketball party. :)

hopeauthority - September 30, 2011

Sorry I didn’t respond sooner. I think the best thing for many autistic kids, especially those with focusing issues or ADHD, are parties without structure like basketball, bounce house places, gyms…it may not be the traditional tight group party, but I’d rather my son have fun doing his own thing most of the time, than be the only kid at his own party who is not sitting with the group.

5. Cassaundra - May 16, 2011

My daughter loves pirates so for her 4th birthday I told her we’re going to have a pirate party and she’s been talking about it for 2 months. It’s two weeks away and I’m trying to plan out how to schedule everything so it goes smoothly. She has sensory integration dysfuntion and needs to wear a weighted belt everyday. I know she had other special needs and this will be our first birthday party with other kids. I’m so excited for because for the first time she’s going to have a day all to herself and her friends to celebrate with. When I was a kid one of my only friends was severly autistic- you could not understand him and he had to be fed still at the age of 7, but I was invited to his birthday and even though it was not like the other parties I had experience it was still his birthday and we were there to celebrate it, it only lasted an hour, tops! I hope I inspired someone to take the time and patience to give their child a special day that they deserve every year.

hopeauthority - September 30, 2011

Cassaundra: So sorry i didn’t get to reply earlier. Serious health issues with my father-in-law for a 4 month ICU nightmare…
Please let me know how the pirate party went! I’m imagining your pirate with a decorated weighted belt of pirate treasure!

6. Eve - September 29, 2011

My son will be 8 in December and along with being autistic he has the added bonus of having a birthday on December 23rd. So being a December baby myself, I know how it goes.
His first birthday party was huge, ridiculous party at a hall, but it was great. The present opening took forever so that should have been held for home, but lesson learned. He was diagnosed at age 3 and we mostly did family parties with our close friends.
I did have a party with kids from school, but it felt a little awkward with the typical kids moms. It isn’t intentional, but it is just hard at times for us to really talk because they don’t always know what to say, I don’t want to be pitied either.

Last year was challenging because my husband and I were just starting divorce proceedings, but I had the party at our home and it was rather successful. Riley was very “on” that day and in tune with the cake and gifts. I know he had a very good time. It made me very happy to see him so happy.

This year I have a dilemma because his father no longer lives in this state and most likely will not be around when I have a birthday party. I am not on the best terms with some members of his family because I had a birthday party for my daughter and chose to only invite her friends or family with children. This apparently caused some problems, but I couldn’t afford it financially and I was afraid their might be some tension at her party because of the ongoing divorce.

So the question stands do I have something for Riley. Normally, I do things at home because he does better in his environment. I don’t know how i feel about my ex’s family coming over. I feel like it might be kind of an invasion and my family there as well, it could get very tense. I was thinking of trying to smooth things over. I would have it at a bowling alley and the kids could play and there would be room to move etc.

An attempt to keep lines open and all of that. I know Riley would enjoy the bowling aspect of it and I think that is the most important thing.

hopeauthority - September 30, 2011

Hi Eve. Autism is hard enough without having to deal with the stress of a divorce. Here’s my take on the situation: First of all, you definitely have something for Riley, whether its home or bowling because he is used to parties and having his bday recognized. Whenever I’ve been on the fence about doing the party I worry that if I don’t he’ll know it. It gets mentioned at school, right? So then they know its their bday and may wonder why no party? Remember, many are developmentally behind a few years, so turning 8 could be like turning 5. And parties are important at 5.

Lets assume all the adults on both sides love Riley and would never want to ruin his day, regardless of how they may feel about the divorce. Why not try this: Take the high road and apologize for slighting those you left out of your daughter’s party. With the invitation, include a note that says something like “Its been a tough year for all of us, especially Riley and X, and I haven’t always made the right decisions. I never meant to offend anyone and apologize if I did. The kids’ bdays are hard on them this year without [hubby] around. I’ve some to realize that having as many of their family members from both sides around them on their special day is very important and I know you love them. It would mean a lot to me and Riley if you would join us in making a wonderful bday for him as I know you love him too.

I can’t imagine anyone but a heartless clod ruining his day, especially after that kind of note. Clear your mind of guilt, get a fresh start, and pick the party your son would enjoy best becasue in the end, that’s the most important thing. Good luck and let me know how it goes!

7. ryansnjmom - November 3, 2011

Hi everyone, I’m new here. My son has not been officially diagnosed, but in my heart, I know he is on the spectrum. We are taking him to a neurologist the end of January (the waiting lists are ridiculous!) Anyway, I just did a search on “do autistic kids understand birthdays” and it led me here. My son just doesn’t get it. When presented with gifts, he just throws them to the side, never mind getting him to sit and open them. He understands blowing out candles and loves cake, but he doesn’t understand we are celebrating him. I had a big party for his first 2 years, he turned 3 today. I felt so embarrassed last year when he wasn’t interested in any of it (now I know why). So this year I decided to still have a party, but just invite our immediate family. They know all that is going on with him, and although it still may be hard, they don’t take it personally. I feel I will always have birthdays for him. Even if he doesn’t understand, I will celebrate his birth each and every year. There is a part of me that will always hope he will someday understand.

hopeauthority - November 3, 2011

Happy Birthday to Ryan! I’m so glad you stopped by here to share your feelings. Its so overwhelming getting through the day-to-day with kids on the spectrum sometimes, and big ocassions are often even harder. Congrats on taking the first step and getting the evaluation. So many parents are understandably so scared to hear a diagnosis that they delay and end up wasting precious time that could be used to to start services and other support which may help your child on the road to recovery. And yes the waits are long! I waited 4 mos for my MD diagnosis after the county’s evaluation, but the county started services in the meantime since their professionals diagnosed him as PDD/NOS (the MD diagnosed autism). FYI: The autism diagnosis gets you more services in many locations so don’t get too caught up in the label they give you.
What I can tell you in the years of experience I have (my son is 9 and diagnosed at 22 months) is that he’s gotten better from services, from holistic therapies like HBOT, NAET, SCD diet, and supplements, etc, and from general maturing and growing. Your son will too. If he doesn’t ‘get” the gift thing, don’t make him open them at the party. Family only parties are fine if that’s what you’re and he’s comfortable with. Once he goes to school or pre-school, if he turns out to be on the spectrum, he will be with others like him and their parents will get it, so you will have friend parties again. And as you get more comfortable with any diagnosis he may be given, your friends and family will learn how to adjust to accommodate ryan’s needs. He will understand what a birthday means someday. He may understand now, but be unable to communicate that to you. This is the first year my son is finally making his own christmas list for santa. Just realize many of the things “typical” kids understand and do may just come later for ryan. But it’ll come. Just get him the support he needs. And take care of yourself as well. Let us know how the party goes!

ryansnjmom - November 3, 2011

Thank you so much for your reply. It really helps knowing there are others out there going through the same thing. My son’s been in early intervention for a little over a year, and he just transitioned out. After all the evaluations, he qualified for our town’s disabilities pre-school program and will be starting in a couple weeks. He’ll be in a class of 8 kids and will be getting speech, OT, and PT. We are thrilled that this will be available to him for the next couple years and are hoping it will make a huge difference for him by the time he goes to kindergarten. I’ve heard so many say that the earlier these kids get help, the better off they are. Thanks again for replying.

hopeauthority - November 3, 2011

You will be amazed at the difference these programs can make. If you’ve ever considered a special diet (it does take some work!), its best to do it when they are still young, before they get used to regular food, so they are not as resistant and it becomes a way of life. Some kids benefit. Mine did, big time. He’s been on a diet sinc ethe day after his third birthday. Some signs that a child could have food allergies are bowel issues, dark circles, or red cheeks. You’ve helped ryan already. he’s a lucky boy.

8. ryansnjmom - November 3, 2011

do you do gluten free and casein free?

hopeauthority - November 11, 2011

Don’t know how I missed this post. Sorry for the late reply. My son’s been on the Specific Carbohydrate Diet for six years. Its like gluten free casein free ON STEROIDS! Seriously, it is no grain whatsoever!!! So while GFCF can have potato, rice and corn, SCD can’t. Also he’s sugar free, so the only sweetener we use is honey. There’s a tab on it on the blog for more info. Or read Breaking the Vicious Cycle by Elaine Gottschall, the bible for SCD.

9. Miri - November 3, 2011

Hi!

I am an OT student, and a mother of a 4 yo boy on the autism spectrum. I am developing a program with a group of peers, and
we are working on creating a “Party Book” for children on the Autism
spectrum. We are conducting a “needs assessment,” and I have chosen
you to answer a few questions, in order to obtain feedback regarding
the NEED for a book that is designed to help plan and execute a
successful birthday party for a child with ASD.

Please take a few moments to think about these questions and provide
us with you (expert) advice/opinions. Thank you!!

1) Do you think there is a need for a ‘Party Book’ designed for
children on the Spectrum? Please explain this need.

2) What topics or areas would you like to see addressed in this book?
(we were thinking of targeting issues related to sensory modulation
and socialization; please give us other areas or some finer details
that we should be addressing.)

3) We were thinking of covering the following topics: activities and
games, party food, party favors, and gift suggestions; do you have any
suggestions for any of these topics? Please elaborate!

4) Do you have any other suggestions, comments related to making a
Praty book for children on the spectrum?

Thank you very, VERY much for your time and expert advice. PLEASE
pass this on to anyone who you think may be helpful as a
parent/relative/friend/therapist of a child with ASD. All responses
will remain strictly confidential and anonymous

Please email your response to:

Miri Goldberg
mirigoldberg@gmail.com

hopeauthority - November 11, 2011

Mimi: SInce you’re using my blog for research, I will reply on the blog so others can see and contribute if they want to.

Here’s 3 party book ideas: One for the ASD kid to know what to expect at a party; one for the ASD parent to help them throw the best party for their child’s needs; and one for the rest of the typical world to know how to incorporate a ASD kid into a typical kids party. Definitely target sensory overload issues…the lights, noise, crowds, smells, and how freakin wonderful it’d be NOT to have all the sweet crap and punches with sugars and dyes. Many ASD kids are on diets. Rigid bday party settings where all the kids are expected to either be still, be quiet, or follow strict instructions, or wait a long time for their turn are NOT good for ASD kids.

Good luck. I look forward to my free copy when its published LOL.

10. Jennifer Shepherd - March 15, 2012

Wow…I just found this sight when I was researching for my son William’s 2nd birthday. He has not officially been diagnosised but I do know. And every comment is answering my questions I had. William is the youngest of my four kids….And Birthday parties have always been a big deal with my other kids. I know he won’t be interested but I guess Its important to me to have the memories and the pictures to look back on. i have made aware to family members that it wont be the “traditional” birthday, but we all love William just the same and wouldnt have him any other way.

I noticed that you mentioned food allergies cause bowel issues, rosy red cheeks. None of my other kids have been allergic to foods. I have no expierence. But William will have 7-8 poopy diapers a day. He gets red cheeks, ears, and his chest gets red and their hot to the touch. I thought he did that when he got tired but could it be the (choc)milk. Because he does have about 4 cups a day.

That brings me to my final concern. He will not sleep. He wants to sleep all day and then be up all nite. 8 or 9 pm and then asleep around 5 or 6 am. Then i have to stay up even if he’s asleep or not because I have to get the older kids up for school and on the bus. Very frustrating. My boyfriend, WIlliams dad, is in denial I think. I am really lost because Im not sure what to expect with everything.

Thank You for your web page. I feel better already.

hopeauthority - February 20, 2013

Jennifer, I’m so sorry I failed to respond to you post. Between working overtime and cooking an SCD diet, the blog got away from me. I will try to be better going forward. I hope William is doing better. Yes, part of the birthday party thing is about you, especially when they are young. But it is also about them, especially as they grow and they do come to understand the concept of bday parties…as I have seen. SO keep doing what you think William will enjoy best, even if it turns out that that day may not have gone as well as you hoped it would. As he grows you will learn what he likes to do and structure his parties that way. This year my son turns 11 and may do a monster mini golf party but I have to also consider if the other ASD kids might be overstimulated by that atmosphere.

Usually my experience showed that red cheeks and dark circles were a food issue, and the stuff they crave like an addict is often the culprit. This is particularly sad when its an otherwise healthy food, like blueberries or bananas. William could have a casein/dairy issue which you can discuss with your doctor or a DAN doctor or naturopath or allergist. Be sure to see one who treats autistic kids. My son did not have a formed stool until he was 18 months on the SCD diet! that’s how long it took for his damaged gut to heal, it was literally days before he was scheduled to have an endoscopy and colonoscopy. But he’s been fine ever since, which is over 6 years now.

As for the sleep thing, I hope it resolved by now, but if not, you may have to force him to stay up even though it will be hard, to break that cycle. Maybe try a soothing evening ritual like a warm bath, quiet/no electronics after a certain time, make it a real set routine (if he is on the spectrum, he will likely eventually adapt and then actually find comfort in the routine).

Let me know how you’re doing.~Tracey

11. Eva - September 25, 2012

Hello, My son will be turning six in November. We have done parties for him only twice, as weather doesn’t seem to agree with his birthday. The first time it was when he turned 2, it was cowboy themed and we did it at a local park where kids could ride ponies. Needless to say it was November and that day was paticurlarly cold. Second attempt was Nemo themed and I decided to do it in the middle summer, at a kiddie beach, the one and only day in August that year where the tempture dropped to about 60 degrees. The rest have been cakes at grandmas, home, school or a day at chuck e cheese. He is aware of birthday parties and how they work also fully aware that his birthday is coming soon.

My dilemma is where to celebrate his birthday, given again that it falls in November, a park seems out of the question, we live in a crappy part of L.A. and I don’t feel comfortable inviting guest over, especially the 20+ plus adults I would like to invite. We always hang out with his 3 immediate cousins, but I would like to involve the rest of the family.

Please help with suggestions as to where I could possibly do a party that is chidren and adult friendly, that is not outdoors and will not leave me broke. Thank you and look forward to hearing some ideas from the Autism community.

hopeauthority - February 20, 2013

Eva: I’m sorry I wasn’t able to answer you in time for the party. What did you end up doing? I love your beach idea and maybe the cool spot was a fluke, but you could do that again a couple weeks earlier maybe. I’m really not a fan of this from a food perspective since my son is on a special diet, but we’re looking at one day and cost and weather here. There may be something you can do at one of those McDonald’s with a playplace attached (not a ball pit, a huge overhead play place). They do have some healthier options and a cheap party package, but depending on the size of the crowd, if that’s too expensive, how would they know you weren’t just a big playdate group? Maybe buy ice cream sundaes or cones for the kids at the end and sing before leaving. Get creative and think of what your son likes and then think of a vendor who can help. Maybe a local bakery that doesn’t usually offer parties would let a small group of kids bake something? Or maybe you do the beach thing but bring plaster and paint sets from a ceramic studio and set up on a picnic table to do the craft. Let me know what you did.~tracey

12. Lona King - December 21, 2012

I can completely relate to what your experiencing. My son is 7 and we have had peer birthday parties for him. His last birthday was an absolute disaster. He spent the entire time in another room while everyone else played the games and activities that I prepared. I spent hours preparing and discussing everything with him and really hoped that it went well. If we do it again, I probably won’t have much structure to the party and will do things much differently.

I hope everything worked well for you.

hopeauthority - February 20, 2013

Hi Lona: Sorry I wasn’t fast to respond here. Thanks for your input. I agree about the less structured party. Resist the tendency to crave order because its YOUR kids day and he will feel more comfortable, have more fun, and not stand out/be isolated if you go with the flow that day. Most of us learn that one the hard way. I like swim parties, bounce house places, arcades. Basically, loud places of bedlam! Although for some kids, the over-stimulation of the environment is a factor. So know your kid, and listen to your own gut when planning the kind of day he will enjoy most.~Tracey

13. Shari - March 3, 2013

Hi all, I read through most of your posts about how to throw parties for children with special needs. I have a 3yr old that hasn’t been diagnosed yet but I know he’s a little bit different. Here’s a thought on how to get our special children to understand the concept of their day or birthday…if you are successful with a venue or place, have their parties in the same place every year and take pictures. Every year, on the week leading up to their birthday, show them the pictures with them in it to jog their memories on what’s about to happen. Train the people that are going to be arround your special childen on how to accept and deal with your special children. This will become part of their routines in their minds. Some of our special children just know. They might not show us very often that they know, but some of them just know. Most of the time my 3yr old shows little interest in what’s going on around him, he’s not talking yet and he hardly ever answers to his name. However, when I show him a picture of himself and ask him who’s that, he says “me”, while pointing to himself. He’s showing us that he has empathy and he likes to draw and doodle. So I know he has something going on in his mind. He just has an issue with showing us how much he knows. I encourage the people arround him to approach him and ask for hugs and kisses, to tell him hi and bye and wait for a response and to get down on his level eventhough he might give the impression that he doesn’t have an interest in what’s going on. I have a journal on him and I see more and more of who is supposed to be everyday. I am learning to be less stressed out about what he’s going through and concentrate more on making sure I respect his mind and how we condition him to grow to be a valueable and contributing member of society.

hopeauthority - March 3, 2013

Hi Shari: Thanks for the insightful input. Some special kids would definitely do well with having their parties repeated at the same place where a prior successful event was held. My son has always enjoyed bowling and swimming parties and had those a couple of times, but the beautiful thing I’ve learned from experience (that I’d have never imagined back when he was first diagnosed) is that they really do improve and mature over time, and the concept of the bday party does sink in. Early on I’d have thought he wouldn’t miss a party (though I have that Italian guilt thing and always gave one) but for the past few years, I know he came to expect and understand his party. He even can choose the venue. I give choices and he picks one. So for those still early on in the game, please believe me that they will understand and enjoy their parties, even if it seems they don’t right now. :-)

14. Ilda - May 21, 2013

Hello! This site has excited and inspired me a great deal. My little guy (Deegan) is turning 4 on the 27th June. I have never had a party for him before, but I will now. He may actually know a little bit about them. lol My other two boys have birthday parties. Why shouldn’t Deegan? I will invite immediate family members and a few close friends to our house and keep it party-themed but fairly unstructured. I love that you give us hope Tracey. I’ve been very pessimistic about Deegan’s future (until 4 weeks ago). I despared of him ever improving. We no longer have the daily smearing, he’s starting to wear shoes, he doesn’t bite people, he’s not trying to constantly run away and there’s less destruction. Success finally!!!!!!

hopeauthority - May 21, 2013

Keep the faith, Ilda. Deegan will continue to improve even though it’s sometimes hard to believe. There are so many cases where non-verbal autistic kids grow up and become verbal and we learn that they really did understand much more than we thought. Just because they may not be able to communicate well, doesn’t mean they don’t hear and understand everything we say, so it’s important to try our best not to say anything hurtful. I personally believe they “get” the bday party thing, especially if they have siblings. make the theme something he likes (a TV show or Disney movie themed party products?) maybe mylar baloons if he likes them since they will hang around for weeks. maybe some backyard music he likes? talk to him about it in advance or make a social story for it so he is prepared a bit for what to expect. keep it unstructured and don’t force him to do anything he doesn’t want. take lots of pictures but focus on candids instead of posed ones since you may not get cooperation on the posed ones (that comes in time, too!) You’re being a good mom. Let me know how it goes!


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