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Birthday Parties for the Sensory-Sensitive Child

Apr23

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Photo by Kiwi Morado

Hey Amy‚

I just found your personal blog and am now reading your Advice Smackdown! My son, too, has sensory issues (all very similar to your son’s issues‚ although‚ I wish my son would chat me up‚ he‚s not so back and forth conversational yet) and will be turning 5 soon. I’m wondering if you have any ideas on throwing a birthday party for my special little man. Last year we kept it family because I thought it would be overwhelming to him to have all the neighborhood kids there‚ but then I had the mom guilt of not having “real” birthday party for him. It wouldn’t be so bad if I didn’t have a younger daughter who is developmentally typical and that I have thrown some pretty fun themed parties for. But alas, my guilt has set in‚ and I’m seeking cool ideas for his birthday this year.
Any ideas?
a.

We did the saaaaame thing last September, when Noah turned three. Skipped the birthday party altogether for fear it would overwhelm him (and me, honestly, since I was ’bout two weeks from giving birth at the time). And then the invites from classmates started piling up — all taking place at fun play centers and kiddie gyms — and I momentarily felt kind of guilty. And then we went to a couple parties at those “fun” centers and gyms, and immediately it was painfully obvious that we’d made the right call.

I’ve looked online multiple times for resources and ideas for throwing birthday parties for sensory-sensitive children and come up mostly empty — the majority of results are parents and therapists simply noting that birthday parties in general are a really, really tough experience for special kids like ours. (And before anybody mentions it, yes, we own The Out-of-Sync Child Has Fun. It’s a great resource for at-home OT activities that could certainly be incorporated into a birthday party [obstacle courses or tactile centers, for example] but I wish it addressed the start-to-finish experience of having your child attend a party without getting overwhelmed.)

I did throw a successful friends-and-family party at our home when Noah turned two, when his sensory problems were not quite as pronounced (although his speech was non-existent), and if I do anything for his fourth birthday this fall, I’ll take the lessons I learned from that:

1) KNOW YOUR CHILD. I think there aren’t a lot of lists and ideas out there because every kid is so different, in so many subtle ways. Some kids will get anxiety from the mere presence of balloons (they could pop, squeak, etc.), some won’t. Some kids can’t blow out candles, can”t deal with organized activities, can’t handle touching things like crinkly paper and tape, can’t deal with drastic changes in their diet like cake and candy and chemicals. If there’s anything your child has a problem with, just…DON’T, no matter what “traditional” birthday party structure suggests.

Our party was successful because we managed (often unknowingly) to avoid the majority of our son’s triggers. We did not attempt ANY organized activities: no games, no &%$# parachute time, no forced opening-of-presents. The party spilled from our house to our backyard and Noah could come and go as he pleased. We had activity “stations” where he could at least play parallel with his friends (just outdoor toys for the most part: a tent, tunnel, inflatable bounce house borrowed from a friends, lots and lots of “aballs”), but we were never like, “AND NOW WE ALL SIT DOWN AND EAT CAKE.” No party hats, no hired entertainment, no pressure from the guests that Noah perform or engage in any particular activity. There were some tears when everybody sang happy birthday (he HATES “real-life” singing) and some drama over taking his shoes off in the grassy backyard for the bounce house (brilliant compromise that took me way too long to figure out: SOCKS), but overall, it was nothing that wouldn’t be expected from a “typical” overstimulated two-year-old.

2) INVITE SOME CAMOUFLAGE. We ended up inviting more adults than children and this REALLY took the pressure off of us to ensure that children were entertained at. all. times. and took the focus off of Noah. Which, I know, it’s his birthday, but he didn’t want to be the focus. He wanted to run around and scream and be chased and then sit by himself for awhile. This is still REALLY true now, as he gets older and sadly a little more aware that he’s not quite like a lot of other kids. Today, I would still invite plenty of adults, a wide variety of ages of children (you know, mix in some two-year-olds so it’s not so apparent if your five-year-old isn’t behaving just like his peer group), and definitely the families we’ve gotten to know during our time in Early Intervention.

3) DON’T KILL YOURSELF ON THE THEME. I don’t know if your son is like mine, but Noah’s “obsessions” tend to burn fast and bright. Depending on what day it is, we could throw a Cars party, a Thomas party, a Blue’s Clues party, a Three Little Pigs party, a Windmills party. (Yes, windmills. Boy was nuts about windmills. Carried around a brochure about wind energy for weeks.) Your son might never sit down and absorb the astronaut napkins you special-ordered online (or in our case, the bunches of bananas I tied bunches of balloons to, because by the time the party happened the boy was so. over. monkeys. Mama). Stick with simple ideas, like his favorite color, and keep activities to stuff you already know he’s experienced and comfortable with — party day might not be the best day to break out a brand-new superhero cape or a backyard waterslide.

If you’re looking to assuage mama-guilt over the planning disparity, focus your efforts on things like making really cool invitations (and preserving one in a photo album about the party) or opting for homemade cake and snacks instead of store-bought (generally a good idea for sensory kids anyway, since you can curb the exposure to food coloring and other artificial stuff). It’s just way, WAY more important that the structure of the day doesn’t throw too many curveballs to your son, and that he doesn’t feel like you’re expecting certain behaviors from him (SIT AND WATCH THE SCARY CLOWN, SON!), or that he’ll be disappointing you if he needs to go sit in his room for awhile.

4) LIVE AND DIE BY THE SCHEDULE. It certainly hasn’t helped that a lot of the parties we’ve gone to have been smack-dab in the middle of naptime, or delay lunchtime until 2 pm, or offer cupcakes at 10 am. “When” the party takes place is just as important as “where.” In the rush of planning and preparing, make sure he eats a good, solid breakfast, offer a snack if you sense lunch will be delayed, commit to a reasonable party end-time and stick to it.

5) LAY OFF, AFTERWARDS. Congratulations! You threw a birthday party. Everybody had fun, only one kid toppled off the trampoline and the dog only ate three cupcakes. Your son had the time of his life playing with the sidewalk chalk. It’s tempting, I know, to get a little too excited by success — after an especially good family outing my husband and I are tempted to constantly quiz Noah on what he saw, how much fun he had, like we’re looking to extend our reign as Greatest Parents Ever. Instead, back off. Plan a quiet family dinner with his favorite food, talking about the day instead of asking questions about it, and introduce the new birthday toys as gradually as possible.

I’d love to hear ideas from other SID or Spectrum parents about their experiences planning and executing birthday parties for their children — what worked, what didn’t, what wildly exceeded their expectations or what exactly caused them to send everybody to bed early and drink copious wine afterwards.


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About the author

Amalah

http://www.amalah.com
Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy's daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it's pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to amyadvice@gmail.com.

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.


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18 Responses to “Birthday Parties for the Sensory-Sensitive Child”

  1. Isabel Kallman
    Isabel Kallman @Alphamom Apr 23 at 11:57 am Reply Reply

    This is wonderful Amy!
    A little observed factoid used by child psychologists is that for typically-developing children, the rule of thumb is invite the number of children per age. So, if your child is turning four, invite four other kids to the birthday party.
    It gets really hard when kids start school and the there are rules like you must invite ALL the kids, invite all the boys, or all the girls, or less than half the class. BAH! No wonder it’s just easier to skip the party.
    So, for a sensory-sensitive child, I would not feel guilty AT ALL for doing a v. small party. Your instincts are right, mama.

  2. Denise Apr 23 at 12:22 pm Reply Reply

    Both my 4yr old daughter and 5 yr old son have sensory issues and benefit from weekly OT visits. My daughter cares nothing about food, especially cake. For her 4th birthday we spent the morning frosting and decorating her cupcakes. She loved putting on sprinkles and other decorations. When it was time to have cupcakes she was excited about picking her favorite (and deciding what everyone else would get). I think she took two bites and maybe stuck her finger in the frosting. But she had a lot of fun with the cupcakes which made that part of her birthday party fun for her.

  3. bethany actually Apr 23 at 12:31 pm Reply Reply

    Amy, this is great! I wasn’t a sensory-sensitive child in the way that Noah and other kids are, but I had a very hard time with a lot of the typical party activities too. All the people LOOKING at me and expecting me to be happy about it, all the stupid GAMES where people would watch me and LAUGH at me.
    Anyway. Isabel’s advice about inviting only as many kids as the child’s age sounds perfect. That was my mom’s rule when we were kids too, and it always worked out well.

  4. stephanie Apr 23 at 12:41 pm Reply Reply

    I don’t have kids (I always feel I have to preface a comment about kids/parenting with that statement), but my coworker has complained on a few occasions that her 3-year-old son’s friends always have parties at the wrong time that end up interfering with the day’s sleep and eating schedule, so tip #4 sounds like a good one for everyone planning a kid’s party.

  5. Heather Apr 23 at 12:58 pm Reply Reply

    Hey Amy, this is all very cool and especially interesting to me as I’m looking to work in child psych. So thanks for your work and stuff :) These sound like great ideas!

  6. heels Apr 23 at 2:27 pm Reply Reply

    Some of my favorite birthdays growing up were when my parents would have me invite just one kid and take us both somewhere special. If your son perhaps has one favorite school friend and there is a destination in the area that you have had particular luck taking him to, maybe that would be the way to go. There’s nothing saying that you have to have multiple kids or hold it at your house (or a typical party location) to make it a special birthday.

  7. michele Apr 23 at 4:11 pm Reply Reply

    I have to say that I think Amy’s advice is actually great for any child –
    the pressure & overstimulation at preschool birthday parties seems way over the top to me whether you are 3 or 30 for everyone!
    also don’t sing Happy Birthday but find a HB recording audio or video that your child likes to sing along to! kids are smart – some IRL singing is scary!!

  8. Becky Apr 23 at 4:38 pm Reply Reply

    I agree with some of the above posters that these are good guidelines for ANY child. I didn’t have sensory issues as a child, but I didn’t care for the ‘typical’ parties as I was a little on the shy side.
    My parents also let me pick a friend to take on a special outing – the zoo, amusement park, children’s museum etc. It was still ‘special’ but not nearly so overwhelming.

  9. mtngray Apr 23 at 6:21 pm Reply Reply

    My 5 year-old has autism, and we’ve had two parties at the house (his first birthday…he cried in his dad’s arms the entire time) (his 4th was @ 11:00 on a Friday morning, right after preschool…he did okay). Birthday’s 2 and 3 were at a inflatable bounce house place…he was okay for a half an hour before getting worn out…but he did like the pizza and cake afterwards.
    Last year, for his 5th birthday, I held off a month and held a joint party for him and his little brother (who turned 3) at the park. (His birthday is around Memorial Day, and it’s waay too hot to go outside). We picked a little park that is never too busy and has lots of room and shade trees. We set up a tent, croquet, and some chairs around the coolers for the adults. The kids ran around and played while the parents relaxed. Jackson pretty much played alongside the other kids, and I think he liked being able to run off on his own if he needed a break.
    Then, at cake time, we let his little brother blow out the candles. It was great, and we’ll do it again next year.
    (I’m sorry, but I really like to use parentheses and …)!

  10. Joceline Apr 23 at 7:29 pm Reply Reply

    @Stephanie-That is totally true about the poor party timing! I can’t tell you how many parties for toddlers that we’ve been invited to right at LUNCH TIME! Every toddler I know, mine included, naps after lunch! It might SEEM weird to have a party at 10am, but if the birthday kid and guests aren’t tired, it will seem wonderful!

  11. Mouse Apr 23 at 9:23 pm Reply Reply

    For our son’s 2nd, 3rd, and 4th birthdays, we assuaged our mommy guilt by coordinating a minor celebration with his daycare. We cleared specific snacks, and for the 3rd and 4th birthdays, I put together little gift packs for his classmates (crayons and stickers one year, seeds and starter pots the other). We did it as part of snack time. He was a little overwhelmed for his 3rd birthday (different preschool than the previous year with many more kids).
    The past two years, we’ve invited his classmates. For his 5th birthday, I prepared all sorts of activities–and we ended up pretty much letting them play in our backyard the whole time. This year, the weather didn’t cooperate, but they kept busy in our sunroom and our son’s bedroom.
    Our son is very noise-sensitive, likely Asperger’s, but we find he can handle parties if he has proper preparation. Each year gets a little better. This year, we had a quick art activity at the beginning (decorating favor bags), got everyone seated for cake and ice cream, and had a pinata (with ribbons, no swinging bats inside). I also worked with him on how to open presents, and he did a great job (though at the last party he went to, he was reminding the birthday girl to look at the card first).
    The thing we haven’t been good at following through on is the party size. This year, we invited his whole class and relied on the party’s proximity to Spring Break to pare the numbers down. We still had 12. Since it was 12 kids he knows well from school, I think it was close enough to what he’s used to that he didn’t freak out. We want to invite fewer next year, but he doesn’t always have a good sense of who his real friends are, so we’ll reevaluate when we get closer.

  12. Amy Apr 24 at 2:08 am Reply Reply

    Great suggestions. I have two boys, one is very typical and my younger has a few issues. I have seen many a party overwhelm even typically developing children. I think parents of all children would do well to take your suggestions to heart when throwing a party!

  13. Lisa M Apr 24 at 9:42 am Reply Reply

    I definitely second (or third) the special outing idea. My older son is 4.5 and we’ve taken him bowling with his cousins for the past two years. He loves it and has a great time. The bowling alley itself is a little overwhelming, but at least no one expects anything of him. As soon as he’s done bowling (usually one game) I’ll let him play a couple arcade games while the rest of the family enjoys another game. I can see this working just as well with a special school or neighborhood friend.

  14. Darcey Apr 24 at 10:43 am Reply Reply

    Well, like a couple others here, I don’t have kids, but had some challenges growing up (transitions, things not going on a schedule I was used to), and smaller group things seemed to work well for me. I didn’t like parties where there was a lot of competition or pressure, so places where I could go with just a few friends was ideal.
    My neighbor growing up always let us borrow her pool for un-birthday parties (my bday is in November, but my mom felt bad b/c all my friends had spring/summer birthdays), and we would have about 4-5 kids, plus parents, just hanging out. We would also do kiddie-pool parties at my grandparents’ house, where the only “forced” activity was to gather when the ice cream truck came by and we could buy any treat we wanted. Then it was back to playing outside.

  15. Sherry Artemenko Apr 27 at 8:16 pm Reply Reply

    What wonderful suggestions for a party for children with sensory issues. As a mother of 3 grown sons and I am a speech pathologist, I don’t know where we got started thinking kids’ birthday parties have to be major blow outs at an offsite playground. My favorite parties for my kids were in the backyard with a few friends. They loved “fishing” for prizes which were attached to their pole hung over a piece of cardboard.
    I have a website with a blog and review of children’s media that encourages language development where I deal with sensory issues as well at http://www.playonwords.com

  16. Eden Apr 28 at 3:58 pm Reply Reply

    My sensory sensitive boy is turning 5 this Sunday. We had tiny parties for him at 2,3,4 keeping to the age = # of guests rule and avoided severe overload for the most part. This year he is socially aware for the first time and REALLY wanted a whole class party (gulp). I researched his favorite children’s museum and discovered that Sunday mornings are incredibly quiet at the museum, often only the party invites are there. Since my son has many food sensitivities but loves cake, we’re playing in the museum having cake and juice on an open buffet, and playing some more. No structure, no demands, just good friends and favorite food. Best of all, we’ll be home before lunch. Keeping my fingers crossed!!!

  17. kakaty Apr 30 at 11:08 am Reply Reply

    I have a 2 1/2 year old and in the last week alone we have been invited to 4 bday parties!! Crazy! I’m a firm beleiver in the family-only parties until school (1st grade+) and then only every other year. I’m fine with having 1-2 other families with whom we are friends over to celebrate with our family but the big bash at the Little Gym – no thanks.
    And unless it’s a close friend of the family we don’t attend these toddler parties either. She goes to the family parties for cousins but that’s about it.

  18. Gina Jul 11 at 9:30 pm Reply Reply

    I feel so much better after reading your blog and all of the comments, I thought I was in the boat alone here. My daughter just went to a birthday party at the most horrible time which inevitably has messed up the entire day and most likely the next few. She didn’t nap and got really overstimulated and I couldn’t talk her out of anything at the birthday and she was so tired she fell asleep on the way home only to wake up and be wired and really grumpy and acting out at home. She didn’t eat dinner and then decided before bed that she was hungry. I believe after reading this that traditional birthdays are too much for any kid until maybe school age. There should be some freedom!

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