Birthday parties are not only fun and good times for our kids but they are important for laying a foundation in which our kids’ relationships and friendships can be built upon. Let’s face it. Birthday parties can be INTENSE. They can be loud, hectic and overwhelming…..especially for children with autism spectrum disorders. We wanted to share a few ideas to help your kids attend birthday parties and to make the birthday experience a social thinking experience in order to help your child increase their Theory of Mind skills and their relationships with peers.
Attending Birthday Parties
For many, birthday parties may be a cinch, but for others, they may be a big challenge. Taking your child to a birthday party may mean you having to step completely out of your comfort zone. It may mean you having to face some uncomfortable conversations and you having to worry about your child being safe and not being judged. Just remember, if your child is receiving a birthday party invitation, this means that this family WANTS your child at the party. They are extending a hand. Remember this and keep a positive mind.
Social expectations start at a very early age. We have had the pleasure of shadowing and doing speech therapy at many schools within our kids’ classrooms….which means that we have been able to be the “fly on the wall” in many classrooms and have had firsthand experience with lots of social situations with kiddos. Children as early as two and a half and three years of age have social awareness about the expectations of birthday parties. They know who is being invited, when the party will be, where the party will be and more. They are completely aware of who attended their birthday party and who did not. They in turn have innate natural social reactions and feelings towards the people that were at their party and those that were not. It is human nature to respond more positively to those that you have positive social interactions with…...this is the same for adults and children. Children are friends with other children that they have positive experiences with. Children are friends with other children that they play with, have play dates with, that attend their birthday parties, etc.
I will never forget one of my friend’s peers (three years old) anticipating his birthday party for weeks. His family invited his whole class. The week after his birthday party, he kept asking my friend, “Why weren’t you there? Why weren’t you there?” over and over again with intense determination and the saddest expression on his face. My friend could not respond. The boy finally turned to me and asked, “Why wasn’t he at my birthday party?”
This little boy then lost interest in my friend and did not interact with him much after that. It was not this little boy being mean or ignoring him on purpose, it was a natural social thinking reaction. “If you don’t come to my birthday party…..you missed out on positive social experiences that all the other children got to have……I’m not sure if you like me……I’ll play with the children that were at my party because that is more socially comfortable and expected…..”
By taking your child to birthday parties, play dates and more, you will naturally be helping them make friends. What if birthday parties are HARD for your child? Here are a couple tips:
Open Communication with the Other Family
It is your family’s choice in how much personal information you want to share with others. Calling the family in advance or writing them an email and telling them a little about your child (what they like, what they don’t like, their sensory needs, their communication, etc.) will help the family know what to expect and what to do to help during the party.
Visit the Location in Advance
If possible, take your child to the location of the birthday party beforehand…..maybe even more than once. Even if the party is at a family’s home, this still is possible….just explain and ask. This will help your child become accustomed to the environment to better prepare them for the big day.
Take your child’s visual supports to the party. Even create a specific visual schedule for the birthday party. It can be simple or more complex, all depending on your child. You can use pictures and/or you can write it out in words like a check list. Example:
Practice the Theme
Is there a theme to the birthday party? If so, engage in activities based around the theme at least one week leading up to the party. This will help your child be more familiar with the vocabulary, the costumes, the characters and more. For instance, if it’s a superheroes theme, color and paint superhero coloring pages, dress up in a superhero costume, read superhero books, listen to and sing superhero songs and more.
Here are a couple links to free printable themed color pages. You can also Google “character name color pages”:
Arriving and Leaving
Does your child do best when they arrive first and get to have a few minutes to explore the environment before everyone arrives? If so, arrive a few minutes early to do just that. You may want to contact the family and let them know you will be early. Also, do not feel bad if you have to leave the party early…..this is completely okay! The main goal is to have your child attend and you can work your way up to having your child stay longer over a gradual period of time.
With a large crowd of people and possible loud noises, the birthday party may be a challenge for your child’s sensory needs. If it’s difficult for your child to sit, let them walk and pace around. If the party is too loud, you may want to take occasional breaks in a quieter area of the party location. Also don’t forget fidget toys, your child’s weighted vest or any other sensory helpers that your child would benefit from.
Increasing Theory of Mind
Your child may have the routine of attending birthday parties down pact. How do we make the birthday party all about your child’s friend? How do we help your child think about their friend, care about their friend and want to take some initiative on making their friend feel special? Have your child be involved in the gift giving process while focusing on their friend. This will help your child build on their relationship with their friend and will create a memorable positive experience.
What do you want for your birthday?
First, have your child ask their friend what they want for their birthday. Have your child take notes (or help them take notes) on the things that their friend wants. Your child can ask their friend in person or they can even call them on the phone or write them an email. Here is an example of a question visual strip to help your child ask the question:
Help your child make a shopping list for the items that their friend requests. Make the title of the list “Name’s Birthday Shopping List.” You can even draw a picture of their friend or insert a photograph on the list. List out each item that their friend requested and draw a stick figure of the item or insert a digital photo. Help your child choose one gift that they want to purchase. When you are shopping, talk about how the gift is for their friend and how the gift will make their friend feel.
Wrapping the Present
Have your child pick out the gift bag, wrapping paper, bows, ribbon and card. Focus on picking out items that their friend will like. “Joey likes Batman…..let’s get him the Batman gift bag!” “Sarah’s favorite color is pink…..let’s get the pink wrapping paper and bows…..she’ll love that!” “Michelle loves Cinderella, look at the Cinderella birthday card…..this will make Michelle happy!” Have your child be involved in the wrapping process and have them sign the card!
Giving the Present
Have your child hand the present to their friend and work gift giving language such as: “happy birthday + name……this is for you……you’re welcome.” Practice the language in advance. Also, when their friend opens their present, talk to your child about how the gift made their friend feel and why. Talk to your child about how they are a “good friend!” Example visual helpers:
We hope you have many positive birthday experiences this school year and that your child has fun while laying that foundation for true lasting friendships and relationships.
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