Last week was Ballerina's and Music Man's birthday. They turned 5 years old. They had never had a birthday party. They had never even BEEN to a birthday party (outside of the family). I felt they deserved a party this year. But how do you plan a birthday party for children who are autistic?
On Sunday, we had a party at The Little Gym of Germantown (our kids have taken classes here for over 4 years). As we do for everything, we had to plan this party VERY carefully. We invited all of their friends from school and from dance class and we hoped that people would come. Overall, five of their friends came to the party (plus my three kids). Eight is a good number. And every child was accompanied by an adult who knew them and who could address any issues that came up throughout the party.
We tried to think of everything. We tried to be sure that the music was what they liked (we provided the gym with a CD filled with The Laurie Berkner Band songs). We tried to antcipate any potential problems and reduce the likelihood of meltdowns, not only in Ballerina and Music Man, but in their friends as well. Big Brother helped with that. He had the job of helping the gym staff to make sure that his brother and sister were having a good time.
The problem is, you can never anticipate everything. We knew that. And that's what we were afraid of. We knew we had to include one of the gym's special things -- The Air Track. Ballerina LOVES The Air track, which is basically a bounce house without the house. The problem is, the Air Track is VERY noisy. The fan is running the whole time it's inflated which can cause a lot of children distress, especially children with sensory issues as many children on the spectrum experience. We also knew that we would have at least one transition from the gym to the party room for cake, which again, can cause problems for autistic children. So, what did we and the staff at The Little Gym do?
Well, first of all, they had several activities planned, but no strong expectations that everyone would stick with the planned activities. The kids were all given freedom to explore the gym at will. If they didn't want to play with the bubbles blown by the teacher and Big Brother, they could play somewhere else. If they didn't want to march to "We Are The Dinosaurs" (by Laurie Berkner Band), they didn't have to.
But we still had that Air Track to contend with. The party leader brought this up early with the parents. She described the noise and told parents to feel free to take their child outside if they didn't feel comfortable with exposing their kids to the noise. As soon as the Air Track was pulled out, Ballerina jumped on, all ready to go. Music Man ran out to the waiting area to view the books and brochures. When we turned the Air Track on, most of the kids stayed and participated and we opened the door so that the two kids who stepped out could hear the noise and make their own decisions. One of these boys came back in once it was fully inflated and joined in the fun. Music Man, on the other hand, stayed in the lobby until the Air Track was "All Done". But he did come back to stomp the air out so it could be put away.
Finally, we had to transition them from the gym into the party room. They offered every child two shakers to shake as they marched from one room to the other. By making this a game, they all went with enthusiam. They were all given the opportunity to sing "Happy Birthday" and share in the cake.
Overall, it was an incredible experience. My kids had fun. And I believe that their guests did as well. If you are planning a party for your autistic child, here's my suggestion to you. Think everything through. Plan carefully, but be exteremly flexible. As Autism Parents know, things rarely go as planned. Parties are no excpeption. Just roll with the punches and keep an open mind and a positive attitude.