While it’s true that any birthday girl or boy can open gifts and blow out candles, this very special event deserves special attention for your child with autism which may otherwise be overlooked.
Age and Time
Although they are usually able to tell you how old they are, some children with autism tend to be unaware of the true meaning of age and the relativity of time. Start by discussing that a ‘birthday’ is the ‘day’ of someone’s ‘birth;’ in other words, the day they were born as a tiny, little baby. Together with your child, you can make the vague idea of time more understandable by creating timelines with your child about his own birth compared to all of his family members.
Explain how we can think of ‘years’ or ‘time’ like a ‘line’ that keeps going and going and going. Use several sheets of attached paper which each represent a year in order to form a ‘time line.’ On these sheets, glue photos from newborn to present day with labels of each corresponding year for your child and his siblings (and mom and dad, if possible). Label any special events from that year, like a family vacation, the first day of kindergarten, or when your child got a pet.
Point out how older people have longer timelines while younger people have shorter timelines. For example, you can ask your child, “How many pieces of paper do you think we need for the timeline to show Grandma’s age?” While looking at the photos, discuss changes in physical appearance like size, hairstyle, and clothing.
Hardly any kids can contain their anticipation and excitement for their own birthdays; however, children with autism might not fully appreciate the significance. Help your child with autism understand that because this day — which is similar to a holiday — does not happen very often, it is special.
Furthermore, a birthday is unlike any other holiday because it’s celebrated only for your child, which makes it extra-special. You can say something like, “We celebrate many other holidays, but this one is special just for you! We are so happy that this day finally came because we waited a long, long time. So, let’s prepare.”
Preparation for the Birthday Celebration
Party Goods: Giving your child the authority to be in charge of her own birthday party is essential to growing that special feeling. Allow your child to pick a theme, and help her purchase or make all of the “special stuff” like decorations, balloons, party blowers, music, games, and so on. Discuss how decorations look ‘cool,’ ‘nice,’ or ‘pretty’ to make the party more fun.
If your child makes her own cake together with you, she can personalize it and understand that this special cake can only be eaten on this special day. Unique cakes made in a special style, like a cake made in the shape of a car, can spark models of language like, “Wow! What an interesting idea!” and “Let’s use cupcakes for the wheels of this car.” Since you and your child have discussed age, she will better understand that each candle on the cake represents each year of her life. Ask your child questions like, “Who will have less candles on their cake when it’s time for their birthdays: Baby Jerry or Uncle Steve?”
Games, arts and crafts, or other festive activities are important for guests of all ages because they provide added purpose to the event and meaningful conversation when reminiscing. Considering your child’s interests and fine motor abilities, choosing unique arts and craft ideas that will have deeper meaning for your child.
Each party guest can make his or her own party hat, or perhaps everyone can help to create a huge group poster honoring your child. You can then model language for your child to express opinions (“Jack, tell your friend, ‘You can use lots of blue on my poster because blue is my favorite color.’”) and compliments (“Jack, look at your friend’s interesting party hat. Say, ‘Your hat is so interesting and sparkly’”).
If it is a kid-party, then instead of board games or video games, choose movement games that your child can participate in like musical chairs, duck-duck-goose, or indoor ‘volleyball’ with a balloon. Practice these games with your child before the party so that your child is familiar with the instructions, methods, and necessary language like, “You’re it!” and “I want to serve the volleyball.”
Although pre-made invitations or online event bulletins are more convenient, it’s better to let your child pick the guest list and hand-make his own creative invitations to enhance his feelings about his special day. Explain that usually a ‘friend’ or ‘family member’ is called a ‘guest’ when he or she is at your house, and the next day, that ‘guest’ now goes back to being a ‘friend’ or ‘family member,’ a lesson that once again reinforces the specialness of that day.
The ‘who, what, when, and where’ of the invitation provides a clear, explicit setting. For comparison and critical thinking skills, ask your child to explain why you couldn’t have the party at 11:30 pm or hold the party at the park on a snowy winter day. Letting your child be in charge of the RSVP (explain that this is a fancy, French way to ask a potential guest to reply about their attendance) will give him a sense of management like how much food to have and how many chairs to put out.
It can be overwhelmingly exciting for your child to be opening lots of gifts at once. As a result, finding the exact, thoughtful words to express appreciation to the gift-giver in that moment may be difficult. Therefore, practice role-playing beforehand where you (unbeknownst to your child) wrap up inexpensive trinkets that you’ve purchased. When your child unwraps the gifts, model language like, “Tara, say, ‘Oh, wow!’ and ‘Awesome gift!’”
Thank You Cards
To express thoughtful sentiments regarding the birthday gifts received, it’s best for your child to create homemade cards with drawings of special events she enjoyed or gifts she received along with the words “thank you!” on the cover. Inside the card, help your child write these “thank you” cards using the steps below (customized for your child’s experience) as a guideline to reinforce language and social skills:
– Hi, [Person’s name / nickname]!
– Dear [Person’s name / nickname],
STATEMENT OF GENERAL GRATITUDE:
– Thanks for coming to my birthday party.
– Thank you for celebrating my special day with me.
SPECIFIC INTERESTING EVENT:
– It was so [fun / great / exciting] when __________.
(e.g., “It was so fun when our team won the indoor volleyball game.” “The picture you drew on my birthday poster was so cool.”)
APPRECIATIVE SENTIMENTS FOR RECEIVING THE GIFT:
– I really like the [name of gift].
– The [gift] is so _____________.
(e.g., cool / pretty / fun / interesting / etc.)
SPECIFIC INTERESTING CHARACTERISTIC:
– [Green / Pink / Blue / etc.] is my favorite color.
– I love this [character]. He/she is from one of my favorite [TV shows; books; movies, etc].
– The design on this [gift] is so colorful.
SPECIFIC INTERESTING USE:
– I feel so cozy in this [article of warm clothing]
– My sister and I made [thing] together with this kit that you gave me.
– When we played this game that you gave me, I beat Dad twice.
– Here’s a [thing I made from the gift received. Enclose it in the card.].
– I will give you the [thing] I made for you when I see you, [person’s name].
– Let’s make a [thing from the arts/craft kit received] together when I see you again.
– Let’s play this game together, [person’s name].
– Look at this photo [enclosed within the card] of me wearing the [clothing gift received].
WISH FOR THE FUTURE:
– I hope we can __________.
– Let’s ________.
(e.g., visit each other again soon; play football together again)
– Your [granddaughter / niece / neighbor / etc.],
Every day is special, and every day should be appreciated. When your child is directly involved with the concepts, ideas, planning, and follow-up for his or her birthday, she or he will understand the wonderful meaning behind this day and be better able to communicate during the party. Afterwards, your child can savor these precious moments through ‘thank you’ cards and conversations while growing closer social bonds.
Karen Kabaki-Sisto, M.S. CCC-SLP, is a Communication Expert and Advocate helping people with autism for over 20 years. As a certified Speech-Language Pathologist and Applied Behavior Analysis Instructor, Karen has been empowering people with autism to have more meaningful conversations like never before. Her highly effective “I CAN! For Autism Method™” – perfected for over 10 years and now incorporated within the iPad app “I Can Have Conversations With You!™” is changing lives through improved social and language skills. It is 100% fun for both kids and adults to use! Join the conversation at www.iCanForAutism.com.
This article was featured in Issue 48 – Connecting and Communicating with Autism