Birthday Party. No two words strike fear in the deepest recesses of a parent’s heart like ‘birthday party.’ Birthday party. Those words conjure up images of colourful balloons, silly hats, cheerful decorations and the feelings of deep anxiety. Who does not have painful memories relating to birthday parties? Fear of rejection – the ‘I’m not invited’ angst and ‘what if no one shows up’ worries – can wreak havoc with a parent’s self-esteem. Never mind a child’s.
Birthday parties stress out parents of both ‘typical’ and special needs kids, alike.
My son started kindergarten this year. In the first few weeks of school he would come home sobbing that he was not invited to so-and-so’s birthday party. As a parent I ached for him, and tried to explain that no everyone can be invited to everything all the time. Eventually he was invited to a classmate’s party, and had a great time. Fortunately the party was in a physically accessible space and the activities were a nice balance of individual crafts and group activities. Music was at a reasonable volume and the decorations were not overstimulating. It was a successful party that my son was able to participate in.
A multi-exceptionality kid, my son has sensory processing disorder (along with some other stuff too). The world is usually too loud, sometimes too bright, and usually not touchy enough, except when it’s too painful. Sensory processing disorder (SPD) means that sensory input is processed differently that in a typical person’s brain. So that fluffy towel you dry your hands with can feel like sharp needles to someone with SPD. Or, conversely, they may not feel it at all. People with SPD are considered ‘hypo’ (too little) or ‘hyper’ (too much) sensitive to sensory stimuli. One person can be hypersensitive to one sensory modality (i.e. sound) and hyposensitive to another (i.e. touch).
To give you a sense of what this can look like – my son will chew a metal fork because he’s seeking touch/ vibratory feedback in his mouth; while tags inside clothes are painful to him. In terms of auditory processing – noises like a baby crying will make my son will yell or cry himself. He wears noise cancelling headphones in the car just in case our baby cries. It’s that painful to him.
Imagine a child with SPD at a birthday party – the sounds, the sights, the smells and tastes are absolutely overwhelming. They may become overstimulated and try to hide, or run frantically around, bouncing into things trying to re-balance their central nervous systems.
What can a parent do? If you are hosting a party, ask parents to indicate any special needs when they RSVP. Most people ask about allergies, we need to start having conversations about special needs. As the host please ask questions about things you don’t understand, and please ask the parent for their ideas. It is also fair for you as the host to ask that parent to stay and help their child at the party. The parent is the expert on their child, after all.
If you are hosting the party consider having a few spots for the party goers – group activity is great, but space for individual or partner quiet play in a low stimulation environment is needed. Let children ‘opt out’ of activities. Consider a video game station where partners or singles can play. Remember to check in on those kids and make everyone feel included and welcome. Kids with SPD may be able to endure sensory overload for short periods if they’re having fun and they have the opportunity for a break.
Final note to the host – as the parent myself of multi-exceptional children, please ensure at least part of the space and activities are physically accessible. My son’s physical disabilities are invisible at this point. But, playing in a ball gym for even a short period of time will cause his legs to cramp painfully. He had to be carried out of the last party we were at. Please consider a range of activities, from sedentary crafts and video games to more active play.
If you are the parent of a child with special needs, I am sure at this point you are the ultimate expert in your child. You are probably a master advocate and networker. Please make a point of (nicely) telling the host about any special needs that may arise, and asking (not demanding) any accommodations. Most people are happy to help, once they know what’s needed. After all, this is supposed to be a fun event.
As parents of children with special needs, we live in our own universes sometimes, and forget about the experiences of ‘typical’ parents. If we do not ask, they do not know what is needed. Personally, I need to speak up about asking for physical accessibility and accommodations at parties and play dates. This is something I’m learning too.
Given all of my son’s complex needs (Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, sensory processing disorder, severe anxiety) planning his birthday party was challenging. How do you balance the needs of ‘typical’ children with my son’s needs? We were fortunate that a local non-profit organization that is run by early childhood educators hosts children’s parties as a fundraiser. I wrote about it here – Care and Feeding of a Whole Bunch of Four Year Olds aka The OEYC Birthday Party. If you are in the Greater Toronto Area (Ontario), you might want to check them out.