Sunday, September 29, 2013

How to Host a Birthday Party for an Autistic 8-Year-Old

Saturday was Ryan's 8th birthday, and his party could not have gone better. If autism parenting has taught me nothing else, it has taught be to head off problems before they happen: I think through how a potential situation will play out, then make adjustments in advance. I believe our utter success was due mostly to good planning, as well as to good luck that Ryan was having a focused day.

Here's how we prepared:

1) Know your customer. We know what elements Ryan values in a party: there must be extensive decorations, including balloons; there must be a significant number of bodies for him to count; there must be a pinata; and it should go without saying that it's not a party without cake. I let Ryan direct the decorating; he had pretty exacting specifications for how to hang streamers on the swing set.

2) Avoid surprises. As you know, Ryan is a stickler for completion, so I foresaw it would be a problem that my mother was going to be arriving without my father (my dad is a Red Cross volunteer, so he's off being helpful in Colorado). I made a point of telling Ryan a couple of days in advance (and repeatedly thereafter) that Grandma Alice would be at the party but that Grandpa Lee would not. Since it was not a surprise, he took it well.

3) Don't make promises you can't keep. I told Ryan "all his friends" would be at the party, but made sure not to name names, just in case someone didn't show up. I'm glad I did this, because three of his good friends never showed, but since I never specified that they would be there, he was not disappointed.

4) Stay flexible. We told our guests to expect a very casual backyard party. In addition to the swing set and sandbox that came with the house, we set out a few fun things for the kids to play with, and we let them go free-range. There were no organized games, aside from the requisite pinata. Our guest list included three non-verbal autistics, two boys with ADHD, and half a dozen neurotypical kids, with ages ranging from 3 to 11, and everyone had fun in their own way, and with minimal parental involvement.
 5) Don't make unreasonable demands. While I prompted Ryan to greet his guests politely and thank them for coming, I did not insist he spend every second playing with his friends. A few times he ducked into the house to play by himself, and I praised his growing self-regulation skills. Far better to take a break than to get overstimulated and have a meltdown.

6) Remember who the party is for. Going to other kids' birthday parties is always kind of a pain for us because we have to pack gluten free food and cake for Ryan. For Ryan's party, I made sure all the snacks were wheat-free. We ordered regular pizza for everyone, but we ordered from a place that could also deliver a GF pie. Instead of subjecting everyone to some crappy rice flour-based cake, we ordered an ice cream cake custom made without the crunchies in the middle. This is another thing I prepped Ryan for: Ryan had never had ice cream cake before (because they always have the aforementioned crunchies), and I didn't want him to reject a not-baked cake because it was surprising. We had several conversations about how special it was that his cake would be made of chocolate and vanilla ice cream.

7) Take your time. We saved the opening of the presents for after most of the guests had left, mostly because Ryan can't fake liking something he doesn't actually like, but also because he tends to be a leisurely unwrapper. Many people open a pile of presents like they have a train to catch, but Ryan likes to linger over some presents, playing with them as soon as the wrapping paper is off, then eventually getting around to opening another box. There's no reason to discourage his enjoyment of each of his birthday presents, so we let him stretch the process out as long as he wants.
This was by far his favorite gift. They're letters that transform into robots.
8) Welcome a puppy. The next door neighbors brought their itty-bitty puppy over. Every party is better with a tiny puppy.

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