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Birthday Parties Can Be a Real Zoo

Parties can be overwhelming for a child with autism.

My son’s birthday is coming soon. Which means we have been thinking a lot about birthday parties.

His party last year was a real zoo. More on that later.

Fun and games, balloons, and cake – who wouldn’t have a great time at a birthday party? Well, my son, sometimes.

When Kai was in preschool, he was invited to several parties. But he couldn’t participate the way other kids could. He couldn’t sit still. If there was an organized activity, he had a hard time following along.  He sometimes became frustrated and acted out. 

After one of those parties, my wife told me that she couldn’t take it any more. It was too stressful and embarrassing being the only mother whose child cried and screamed. From then on, I was responsible to take Kai to most of the birthday parties that he was invited to.

These days he usually does much better. But not always. I still don’t feel comfortable just dropping him off the way parents of typical children usually do by the time their child is in second grade. I like to stay close in case things don’t go right.

A few months ago, we went to a party at a classmate’s house. The basement was teeming with kids. A young man was leading the children in a variety of party games. Most of the kids were participating, but Kai was not. Perhaps the frenzy was too much for him. He started shouting, “I hate this party!” 

It was mortifying.

I apologized to the mother, and tried to calm Kai down.  When I saw that he wasn’t going to settle down soon, we left. On the ride home, I talked with him about his behavior, and he lost some privileges that weekend. 

When the next party invitation came, he was excited and wanted to go. That time he had a great time.

His own birthday parties

When Kai turned four, we had a party at our house and invited his classmates from the early childhood program he was in. He was excited leading up to it, but on the day of the party, he became unusually quiet. When it began, he clung to Mom, and he did not enjoy it at all. The whole thing was overwhelming for him and we decided that we should not have a party like that again.

So, for his next two birthdays, we only had small celebrations with family members.

By last year, though, he had become much better in environments that were previously difficult. So, we decided to give it another try. 

We invited all of his classmates from his therapeutic school. 

We were touched to find out from one of the moms that this was the first time that her daughter had been invited to a birthday party. A child with special needs, she’s been excluded from parties in the past.  Upon getting our invitation, the girl was so excited that she wanted to rush right out to buy Kai’s present.

We can relate. Although most other parents have been wonderfully inclusive with Kai, there was one time, when he was still mainstreamed in a regular class in kindergarten, we found out that he and the other child with special needs were the only ones not invited to their classmate’s party. For all the difficulty that parties can be, we still would rather have the option to go, and leave early if necessary, than to feel that our child is considered unwanted by others.

As Kai’s party last year got started, we were nervous. There was a pretty big crowd – 14 kids and a dozen critters. We had arranged for an animal show as the primary entertainment. 

I wasn’t sure what to expect. The majority of the kids had some type of special need. But they were hooked from the moment that they saw the first creatures, a couple of snakes. They all smiled and laughed as each subsequent animal was brought out.

The handlers did a great job in giving every child a chance to get close and touch each animal. They noticed when one boy was not able to get through the fray of the other children and made sure that he got to pet each animal, too.

The kids had a great time and later we heard from parents who told us how much their child kept talking about the party afterward.

As for our son, he loved seeing all of he animals.  But for us, it was just as satisfying to know that he was able to deal with all the excitement without getting overwhelmed.

This year we are planning something totally different.  It won’t be a zoo, at least in the literal sense. Hopefully it will be just as fun.

Michael Moore February 15, 2012 at 12:04 AM
Sorry I missed the party, the boys had a great time. Hope I can make the next one. Have a good night. Mike M.

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