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Avoid Birthday Party Trauma

A little planning can make your special needs child a part of the fun

Raising a child with a special need certainly has its ups and downs. An impending birthday party, either for your child or a peer, can be a roller coaster ride of emotions for both you and your child. Will anybody show up? Will my child be able to participate? Will my child have a melt down? These concerns are all natural, but with creative planning and realistic expectations, your child can be a part of the fun.

If you are hosting…

Let your child guide the planning. What does your child like? What are they able to do? If your child doesn’t like chaos on a daily basis, they certainly won’t have fun with a house full of kids amped up on cake and ice-cream! Depending on the need or the situation, consider inviting just one or two children over for a birthday dinner, or go to a concert or sporting event. You can still decorate and get a cake, even if there are only a few guests to make it their special day.

If you are hoping to use the party as a springboard for friendships, connect with parents ahead of time. By talking with parents, you will have a better idea of who is planning on attending. If you are inviting your child’s entire class, consider what activities will be fun and appropriate for all invited. Ask your child’s teacher for ideas.  Your local YMCA probably offers packages including swimming, gymnastics, and open gym parties. Consider your local hobby store or nearby museums, as they also usually offer party packages as well.

Be realistic about the time frame! One hour of a great time is better than two hours that feels like ten. If there are rituals or medications built in to your schedule, make sure to plan your party around it. Nothing spoils the fun like a child yelling at the kids to be quiet because it’s two o’clock and their favorite show is on, or having to pull away the birthday child because it’s time for medication.

When they get invited…

When a party invitation comes home it can be so exciting! Someone likes them! Then enthusiasm gets replaced with worry. What if my child needs to use the bathroom? What if they serve red dye? What if they do a physical activity? These concerns are normal, and it will help to talk with the party host. Stick with facts of what would happen instead of what could happen. For example, would contact with latex party balloons cause a serious problem? Speak up. Are there triggers that would cause a seizure or meltdown? Share this information with the host. If it does look like something your child will not be able to attend, offer another time your child can celebrate, or maybe come for the beginning or ending of the party. Or, could you go a little earlier than party time to help your child adjust to the surroundings? Would it be alright if you could stay for a bit? More than likely, it will make the host feel better having you there for your child. The trick is to make sure you take a back seat to the fun; give your child some room to be with the other children without you hovering.

If something does go wrong, and it might, remember your child’s perspective. Birthday parties come with a lot of pomp and circumstance. For most children, talking about the big birthday party is exciting and part of the fun. For some children with social disabilities, however, it only increases the anxiety, to the point that the idea of going to the birthday party becomes traumatic. In this case, down play the party, listing it as one of the errands taking place that day. Go to the gas station, run by the party, stop in. And while it’s easy to get sad that your child might only stay for fifteen minutes, at least they were there for fifteen minutes!

If your child does have a meltdown, it can be frustrating for you, but confusing for the birthday child. As much as you might want to convince your child to stay, or even demand that they stay, consider the birthday girl/boy. Is this really what you want them to remember about their party? Cut your losses, thank the host, and stay positive. While your instinct may be to start crying, put that on hold for later. Consider the fact that your child tried to attend the party, which in itself may have been a new accomplishment! If it’s possible, talk with your child about what went wrong, and try to use this as a teachable moment.

If you know a child with a special need is coming to your party…

On behalf of parents of children with disabilities everywhere, thank you. Thank you for including our child and know we will do everything we can to help you. If you have any questions, just ask, even if you do not know us very well. Invite us to stay for coffee during the party. If the party is taking place at laser tag, it is possible that our child cannot attend. However, we can join in where it is appropriate and possible. If a tantrum or seizure does take place, offer assistance, and if it is not needed, remember the other children are watching you for your reaction.

The biggest mistake is not inviting a child because you aren’t sure how to handle the situation. While the hurt is not intentional, being left out does sting, whether the child has a disability or not. Parents know their kids cannot get invited to everything, but if you find yourself hesitating if you should invite a child simply because of a disability, please think again. Consider the classic question “What if it was my child?” Then go from there!

Julia has learned not to use birthday candles that sparkle or continue to relight! Contact her at juliagarstecki.com.