Let’s Party: Celebrating without the Stress

Birthday parties are so much fun for children and such a big part of childhood. But to children with special needs, parties and many other social events can be overwhelming. To us adults, these parties are often stressful to organize and they take a vast amount of time, energy and money to engineer. As the mother of seven children, I have planned a few parties over the years.

autism parties without the stress

In our family the youngest two have special needs. One is a sensory avoider and the other is a sensory seeker. Their birthday parties look very different from one another. My son Tate would be miserable in a bouncy house full of children while my daughter, Sydney, would love every minute of it. It would seem, the most important thing to remember when planning your child’s birthday party is the party is for him, not for you or anyone else. If your child hates surprises and is known to meltdown without transition warnings, it would be cruel to have a room full of people jump up and yell, “Surprise!” when he enters a room on his birthday. If your child eats gluten-free, then you certainly do not want to have a traditional cake that he cannot eat. If your child is 15 years old chronologically, but developmentally much younger, keep that in mind when planning his party. Ask him what he would like to do for his birthday. Ask him what he would like the theme to be.


Before you can really think about the party details, you will need to think about the generalities. When and where will the party take place and who will be coming? My sensory avoider would rather have his party with family only, at home or maybe at his favorite pizza place, while my sensory seeker might ask if we could take a carload of children to a petting zoo or an amusement park. My son with autism would probably insist his party be on his birthday and he could not be easily swayed, while my daughter would be flexible and would gladly wait for the weekend. When you are sure of the date, the guest list, and the venue, it will be time to decide on details such as a theme, the menu, activities and game ideas.

Some questions to ask yourself:

  • Do your child’s party guests also have special needs? What accommodations need to be made for them? Are there food allergies? Is there a need for wheelchair accessibility? Be sure and let their caregiver know what activities are planned so they can decide how to handle the things that might be a challenge.
  • Will there be a need for transportation for the guests? If your party will be outside, how close is the nearest restroom? Will you need additional adult helpers? Do you plan to decorate a room? Will you be providing party favors or treats for the children to take home? Will you serve snacks or a meal? Will you bake a cake or buy one?
  • What kind of activities will there be at the party? Do you want a party with centers so the children can rotate through stations? Will there be water play and the need for swimsuits and towels?

Successes and Failures:
Over the years we have had some memorable parties and I have learned that some of the best birthday celebrations came without a huge price tag. Build-A-Bear was a huge success. Parties at Chuck E. Cheese were especially enjoyable when the child with the birthday just chose one special friend to come along. Themed family parties with just Grandma and Grandpa in attendance, a special dinner, and lots of laughter have been the most recurrent. My kids have often told me the party they remember most fondly is one of the simplest we ever had. We had a pirate-themed evening with an elaborate treasure hunt. A clue at the beginning of the evening led the children to another clue, which led to another and another.  Eventually they uncovered a treasure map. Their dad had buried a plastic bag filled with “treasure” out in a field. They followed the map and actually had to take turns using a shovel to dig up their treasure. It was fun for all ages, adults included, and we made a great memory that evening.

We have had a few botched party activities over the years. I once tried to play musical chairs with a group of children who were just too young to understand the concept. There was whining and lots of pushing and shoving. That makes for a miserable birthday party. I also found that ten blindfolded seven-year-old boys, a plastic bat, and a piñata, produce mayhem at even the most organized party. Additionally, we learned that a six-man tent in the front yard, eight teenage girls, and a rainstorm, is a recipe for disaster.

Strategies for success:

  • Ask for RSVPs and follow up. Do not assume that people will show up. Remind them again the day before the party. Your child needs to know what to expect. If he is anticipating eight children at his party and only one or two come, he needs time to process that and so do you. It could go the other way, too, and you want to make sure you are prepared.
  • You need extra adult hands available for the party. Do not plan a party for your special needs child and five friends and hope you can do it alone. If you have no relatives available to help, perhaps a staff member at your child’s school would help or a parent of one of the children you invited. If your child or another child attending requires an adult helper in a school setting or any other setting then they will require the same at your child’s party.
  • I have learned I should always have a Plan B just in case the original plan does not go well — an extra activity held back as insurance, TWO kinds of ice cream in case someone is allergic to chocolate, an extra adult on standby to help deal with a meltdown among many other things, or an alternate date in case of inclement weather. Plan B can save the day.
  • Trying a new activity that requires a lot of skill is probably not a great idea for a birthday party. If your special needs child is asking to go zip lining, visit a skateboard park, or try rollerblading or waterskiing for the first time ever, you might want to choose a day before his special day to try that out. His birthday will not be a good day for finding out that he hates waterskiing or that skateboarding is a lot harder than it looks.
  • A visual schedule would be a great idea at a party, and not just for the child with autism! It is a great way to keep all the children on task and let them know what is next. If you find you are running out of time you could simply rearrange the schedule and eliminate one activity. Similarly, if you found yourself ahead of schedule you could add your standby activity (Plan B).

Game ideas for all ages and abilities are plentiful:

There are many games, activities, and crafts that would be appropriate for both sensory seekers and sensory avoiders. Check Pinterest or Google for ideas.  Of course the party theme might determine what activities you use. Activities might need to be tweaked to fit the theme. Things like a beanbag toss are usually appealing to children of all ages and abilities. A duck pond where a child picks a rubber duck out of a bowl of water and checks the bottom for a prize name or number is always fun. Similar to the duck pond is fishing with a stick, string, and magnetic fishing pole to catch paper fish that have a paperclip attached, thus allowing the magnet to “catch” them.  Bingo is an ageless game that can be customized to fit any occasion or theme. If you have enough adult helpers, a simple scavenger hunt would be a great game and it could fill quite a bit of time or be shortened as needed.

It is so important to remember that our children with special needs need to have many of the same opportunities as their siblings and peers. Of course, often the child with autism would prefer to have a quiet evening at home and would not even appreciate traditional birthday cake. So their birthday celebration might be something their peers would consider very dull. We must remember whose birthday it is and make the celebration one they will value.


Lisa Smith is the mother of seven children ranging in ages ten to twenty-six. Lisa’s youngest two children have special needs. Lisa’s blog called “Quirks and Chaos” entertains and educates as she discusses autism, adoption, Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) and ADHD. Find Lisa on Facebook as Quirks and Chaos.



This article was featured in Issue 29 – Finding New Ways to Thrive

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