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Planning Parties for Kids with Autism or Sensory Processing Disorder

October 11, 2021

Seven party planning ideas to prepare your little one with autism or sensory needs for social events. 

Seven party planning ideas to prepare your little one with autism or sensory needs for social events

If you’re planning a party for a child with autism or sensory processing challenges, it helps to be sensitive to his/her unique needs. Here is a list of ideas to help increase enjoyment and prevent meltdowns, tantrums, or shutdowns:

1. Give advance warning and information

  • Use a social story, visual schedule, or sequence and create a picture book to reduce the party’s element of surprise. You could also show pictures of the party venue and who will be there. Try role-playing in anticipation of situations that may arise during the gathering. Role-play could include following directions and the practice of questions that may come up at the social event

2. Plan food carefully and think about texture

  • Focus on the texture, temperature, and taste of the food that your child consistently enjoys and serve it before and during the party. Textures might include crunchy, smooth, creamy, soft, hard, and sticky. Taste includes salty, bitter, sweet, sour, or tart 
  • If your child becomes sleepy after consuming a particular snack, skip it to save energy for the party. Include gluten-free and casein-free food and drinks since there is a high rate of gluten and dairy intolerance in autistic kids. Baby carrots, celery sticks, and diluted fruit juice are healthy options
  • Consider making pound cookies—pounding away could help decrease excess energy prior to a party! Prepare by counting out candy pieces, placing the candy in a sealed plastic bag, and “bashing” it with a wooden mallet or small hammer. Remove the crushed candy from the plastic bag and incorporate the pieces into cookie dough before baking in the oven. Pound cookies reinforce counting skills and teach your kids to participate in hosting. Praising your child for helping with the cookies could also be a great conversation starter at the party

3. Find an appropriate, adaptable venue

  • Check to see if local venues like aquariums and zoos have sensory-friendly options. Chuck E. Cheese, Hartford Stage, and The Bushnell are examples of venues that host sensory-friendly days where noise levels are reduced and bright lighting is avoided. We Rock the Spectrum Kid’s Gyms has a Rock Unique special needs party package with a trained staff member to ensure your event is less stressful
  • Room deodorizer can be overwhelming to inhale, so discuss this with the venue director or your housecleaner before booking the place or setting up the party at a home 
  • Find a quiet, private spot as a backup for meltdowns or rising anxiety 
  • Carry a pair of noise-cancelling headphones in your bag
  • Try to avoid arranging the party at a new venue such as a bowling alley or bounce house. Instead, consider hosting the party at a familiar place like home or a destination your child has visited previously
  • Outdoor parties are especially great as there is a reduced risk of offensive smells and contained noise, while pool parties are good for building motor skills

4. Keep the noise volume appropriate

  • Pick quality balloons and hang them out of kids’ reach to avoid accidental loud, annoying popping. Hot lightbulbs, heated cars, and rough ceilings can prick balloons. Light-colored balloons are less likely to pop than darker balloons since lighter balloons absorb heat slower than darker products 
  • Avoid noise-makers like egg shakers, mini flutes, party blowers, hand-clappers, or kazoos. There are hundreds of themes to choose from with cartoon characters, Legos, trucks, and more which are quieter options. Offer a select amount of the available themes to your child, as too many options kick anxiety into gear  

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5. Opt for previously tested (and appropriate) activities

  • Go for activities your child has already tried and enjoyed, like building rocket ships out of paper towel rolls or finger painting. Bead empathy bracelets are fun to make, with each colored bead representing a different emotion. Yellow beads symbolize happiness, while blue beads symbolize relaxation. Calm-down bottles—made with water, clear glue, glitter, and food coloring—are calming to the sight and touch 
  • Sensory bin tubs serve hours of fun. Fill plastic tubs with squishy and soft water beads or sand, marine animals, and blue-dyed water to create a beach theme 
  • Colored dry rice, foam, or cloud dough feel soothing to the hands. Invite an assistant or babysitter your child knows and likes to help at the party 
  • Teens with autism, asperger’s, or sensory processing disorder (SPD) might enjoy music therapy, puzzles, beading, farms, or yoga
  • Lighting candles on the cake or singing songs may be too much for some kids, so you may choose to skip these parts. You could whisper songs as an alternative to skipping songs completely  
  • Consider requesting donations of food cans or supplies to a homeless shelter or animal shelter in lieu of receiving gifts. If you opt to receive gifts, perhaps tell your child what gifts to expect ahead of time. Opening gifts in front of guests may create anxiety
  • You could pass out autism awareness shirts, bracelets, stickers, and bags for party favors. Steer clear of sugary party favors and try temporary tattoos, bubbles, slime, Play-Doh, or art supplies as a thank you for coming. Parents will welcome $5 gift cards to a bookstore or healthy fast food spot in place of items that may end up in the bin

6. Carefully plan your guest list

  • You may wonder if you should invite other special needs kids only, or have a mix of kids. Go with what you think is best for your kid. Some parents invite friends from speech and occupational therapy or from enrichment classes like sports, music, or art
  • As you wear your party planning hat, ponder who to invite, the number of guests, venue, and activities. Always keep in mind the fact that each child has different sensory needs

7. Give yourself a pat on the back!

  • Take care of you! Resist comparing your child to other kids at the party in terms of reaching milestones for their age. Regardless of how the party turns out, treat yourself for your hard work with a massage, catching up on pleasure reading, chatting with an old pal, or whatever brings you happiness

This article was featured in Issue 123 – Autism In Girls

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