There are shitloads of birthdays this time of year, aren’t there? While adults have the freedom to decide how, when and if they want to celebrate, kids often have things organised for them by their parents. So I wanted to talk a bit about how birthdays can sometimes be difficult for autistic kids and what we can do as parents to support them.
Birthday parties can be loud, chaotic and unpredictable; all things that might be tough for autistic kids to deal with. If your child is invited to a birthday party, try and get as much information as you can about the venue and the schedule of events so your child can get some idea of what it’s going to be like. Photos or a video of the venue can help, as well as a list of party games or activities so there are no surprises. Some autistic kids might not want to join in the party games so maybe bring along something else for them to do if they don’t want to just sit and watch.
Hearing defenders might be a good plan and maybe ask other kids not to pop balloons on purpose (although it can sometimes happen by accident, so be prepared)
Also have an exit plan in place in case you need to leave suddenly. There is no point forcing an overwhelmed child to stay at a party- which is meant to be fun- if they are having a horrible time. Don’t forget how sensory overload feels to an autistic person.
Hopefully other parents will understand that parties are not always accessible to autistic kids, and that declining an invitation is not necessarily a sign that your autistic child doesn’t like their child. Some autistic kids appreciate being invited even if they don’t want to go, but some don’t.
If it’s your own child’s birthday consider that they might not want a party at all. They might just want a day with immediate family doing something fun, or they might just want their routine to continue as normal. Please remember that it is THEIR BIRTHDAY and they should be able to choose how to celebrate, or if they want to celebrate at all.
Some autistic people find it very difficult to cope with surprises- even nice ones like presents. The idea of unwrapping something in front of other people and not knowing what’s inside fills me with dread. I hate getting unwanted presents because I never know whether to be honest and switch it for something else or whether to just pretend I like it. And if I do pretend to like it then I have to decide whether to charity shop it later or leave it lying around the house as a permanent guilty reminder.
I have no idea if neurotypical people go through all this. But anyway. Please, please check if your autistic child wants a surprise or whether they want to choose their own present. They also might not want it wrapped up. Don’t spring a surprise on them because “it’s part of birthday fun”; the day is not ruined if they are not surprised.
Sitting there while people sing Happy Birthday can be super awkward. Please check if your child wants it and let other guests know so they don’t spontaneously start singing. I have been at parties where there was no singing and it was fine, everyone still had a good time.
They go bang. It’s loud and sudden and can be scary. They also make a horrible squeaky noise when you pick them up. If you have a noise-sensitive autistic child then they might not want balloons. As an alternative, you could put un-inflated balloons in party bags to hand out at the end of the party.
Alternative ways for parents to celebrate
I’m a parent too so I’m well aware that a child’s birthday is not just a milestone for them, it’s a huge milestone for the parents as well. You might feel a bit down about it if your child doesn’t want to celebrate at all, or if they want to leave out activities you enjoyed as a child like party games.
It is fine to celebrate as parents in your own time. Have a nice dinner and watch some baby videos, make a scrapbook of your child, make a cake and eat it yourself… there are so many things you can do to mark the milestone yourself. Your kid is another year older and that’s something most parents will want to recognise.
Whatever you decide to do as a family, remember that just like Christmas, there is not one correct way to celebrate.