No doubting, parties and celebrations are an expressway to smashed cake when Autism in the mix. Read on for the Kiwi and Spoon take on why, and what you can do about it.
Boo, our resident ASD-specialist, has been a kiddo on this planet for near on a decade. That’s a lot of parties. And I love planning parties. It’s one of my ‘things’. It’s a creative outlet, a chance to build memories, get fab snaps of happy cake smeared faces, and capture the awe and magic of childhood.
Herein lies a bit of a problem. You see, Autism and parties aren’t the easiest of companions. With the very word ‘party’ we conjure up thoughts of surprise, winners, excitement, anticipation, spontaneity… and with Autism we tend to think of routine, expectations, predictability. Class of the terminology there.
When Boo was a little, he would stand on the side lines of his friend’s parties, never wanting to join in. He was quiet about it, but he wanted to be alongside Mum. He did not want to join in games. At that stage, we simply thought he was shy. At his own parties, we had a combustible mess of Tantrum Trauma. He simply couldn’t cope. He was so excited, desperate for his moment to come, but when it did, his brain sent him off on a Helter-Skelter of chaos. Many of his younger parties were punctuated with tears and frantic attempts to make the Birthday Boy happy, with varying degrees of success.
Strangely, he has always looked back on his parties with such joy and fondness. He doesn’t remember his stress and angst, phew. But now that he is older, we’ve worked out some ways to make it work for him. Finally, after about 7 or 8 years we seem to have nailed how to do parties for our ASD-struck kiddo. And how to enable him to enjoy other celebrations with some degree of ease.
The Party Rules
Yep, as with all things ASD, rules are the name of the game. Rules provide a framework which feeds the predictability that calms the Autistic child’s inner anxiety over change.
- Understand Their Expectations
Typically, Boo has problems communicating what he thinks, but this is essential. The Autistic Birthday Child (ABC) is highly likely to have a completely set in concrete set of expectations. You need to do some detective work and figure out what they are.
- Forget About Surprises
Anticipation and Autism are a combustible mix in the ABC. So don’t overload the anticipation by adding in surprises. Instead, get the ABC on board with the planning. Let them pick the games, choose the theme, even see the cake.
- Make a Timetable
Work out a rough timetable of which game will be played when, when tea is etc. Then write the timetable in a list, or visual form, and stick it to the wall. Show the ABC how, for example, you will welcome your guests and where you will put the presents, then you will play Musical Statues, then you will do Pass the Parcel etc. This way the ABC knows what’s happening and what to expect.
- Keep it Fair
This is possibly going to be the hardest hurdle. Autistic children tend to be sticklers for justice, so winging things and throwing out prizes willy-nilly whilst bending the rules for the less able child is likely to create Meltdown Madness. Instead work games where all children get an equal prize (e.g. a badge), but the winner gets to choose first.
It’s My Party And I’ll Cry If I Want To
Yep, have an escape plan. Have one adult primed to whisk away the ABC for some calming down in a quiet place where they won’t be embarrassed or affecting their guest’s enjoyment of the party. Explain to the ABC the problems they’ve encountered at parties before and how using this Time Out may help them manage and enjoy the whole party.
But What if It’s Not THEIR Party
A whole new challenge! Fraught with its own set of problems. If you’ve got a Jekyll and Hyde Type (link: https://kiwiandspoon.com/2016/03/09/jekyll-hyde/) you may find that the Autistic Child simply copes, holds it all together, and then releases the tension in a ball of explosive sugar laden party-bag throwing angst once they get home. However, you may find you’re the parent who is accompanying your child to parties long after the rest of the parents are dropping and running in such haste they are sure to scold themselves on that child-free Latte they are heading for, simply to help your child navigate this Social Maelstrom.
What can you do to help?
- Social Stories and Role Play – Set Expectations
Help your ASD kiddo understand what is expected of them at parties. Play pretend pass the parcel with some Cuddly Friends. Have a Tea Party where you explain how if you don’t want to be thumped by Spiderman then don’t take all the cocktail sausages.
- Don Your Detective Hat
This is easier if you know the party hosts well, but a quick chat about issues, and could they tell you what’s happening, and if there are plans for a surprise entrance of an Entertainer who has far too much energy for their own good.
- Be on Hand
Let go of any thoughts of being judged as a Helicopter Parent. Sod ‘em. No one knows your battles and why you have to do what you do because if you’re doing a good job, you’re heading off the problems at the pass. But be on hand for your ASD kiddo, ready to explain as needed, but also ready to exit if it gets too much.
- Keep Going
The temptation to give up for an easy life is tempting. And sometimes that’s going to be the best call for you, your family, and your tenuous sanity. But if you can, keep going. ASD kiddos need extra help with navigating the social quagmire, but learn to navigate it they must, because one day you won’t be on hand to guide and help (unless you fancy stumbling in to Maccy D’s and crushing your 13 year old’s street cred…). Better to learn in the safe environment of a kiddie party, or a family celebration, than be let loose later on, with limited skills and bewildered excitement. If you feel you or your child are being judged, just try to remember: no one is walking your path, it’s no reflection on you, your parenting, or your child, whatever anyone else thinks. You’re ace, ok?
And when all is said and done, it’s perfectly permissible to raid the party bag for chocolate, and down it with a glass of wine for another day survived and another parenting stripe earned. Parties are not just do-able with Autism in the mix, they can be enjoyable, they just need a bit more planning and preparation. As always.
Have you got any top tips for enjoying parties with ASD in the mix?