Kid birthday parties are a rite of passage for parents. We have children. They get older every year. Eventually, they are going to want a party.
Although birthday parties often prove to be a gargantuan amount of work—Where should it take place? What’s the theme? How many children should we invite? And do I really have to come up with games and goodie bags?—the payoff is usually worth it. The smile on a child’s face as friends and family crowd around singing “Happy Birthday” or her laughter while playing a game are memories we want.
Families affected by special needs want these memories, too. As our kids’ number one advocates and cheerleaders, we work to make sure their life experiences resemble their typically developing peers’. Why shouldn’t they? Every child deserves to play in little league, participate in a ballet class and have a birthday party.
Honestly? The thought of a birthday party for our youngest daughter with a dual diagnosis of Down syndrome and autism (and who is nonverbal) frightened me. I worried that a party would be too much. Evangeline gets overwhelmed easily, and hasn’t shown much interest in her birthday—presents, singing, the whole thing. She hates lit candles and doesn’t care for the birthday song.
But I wanted to have a friend party for her because being nonverbal doesn’t mean she doesn’t understand. I wanted to show her that we celebrate HER.
Like with many things in life, parents of kids with disabilities need to carefully prepare for birthday parties.
But here’s the good news: It can be done. And it can be a blast.
Throw out all your preconceived notions about birthday parties. For Evangeline’s party, I tried to think of activities and foods she would enjoy and that would work for all the kids attending, both special needs and typically developing.
We had our party at a church. The room was set up for kids with special needs. The building had an elevator and ramp and a quiet room for those who needed a break. Plus, Evangeline knew the space well because she attends Sunday school there every week. If you don’t have a space like this available in your community, get creative. Maybe a room at the library would work, or perhaps your home is big enough. Think about how many kids could comfortably fit, and then just to be safe, and to account for wheelchairs or other equipment, invite three fewer.
I made sure we had enough helpers for the day. I enlisted my older daughters. Some of the parents agreed to stay. I even invited Evangeline’s teacher from school. They all were a great help one-on-one with the kids as I kept the party moving along.
Provide snacks and perhaps something sweet, but overall, don’t make a big deal over food. Eating can be stressful for some kids, and others may get nourishment through tube feeding, or have certain allergies. On our invitations, I made it clear that a full meal would not be provided. We served yogurt, grapes and mini-cupcakes and held the party between lunch and dinner.
We threw out the birthday song and candles because our daughter is afraid of them. The kids were busy having fun. No one even noticed!
We put coloring sheets on the tables, had a homemade ‘pin the hat on Barney’ game without blindfolds so that every child could participate, and danced to “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” and “The Hokey Pokey.” Again, kids could participate or not, and the ones who preferred being in another room during that time were paired up with a buddy willing to initiate quiet activities or just hang out.
Ten kids or fewer is best. When you throw in extra help and parents, the party will be bursting at the seams. Also, make the party two hours or less. All kids seem to hit a wall after two hours of high-energy fun.
We opted not to open presents during the party because it is exhausting for Evangeline. Later on, we helped her open gifts one at a time and stretched it out over a few days.
If you hand out goodie bags, make sure the items inside can be appreciated by all guests and aren’t harmful. At the end of our party, each child received a bag with stuff Evangeline likes: a mini chocolate bar, a harmonica (all kids love music!) and bubbles.
The party may go according to plan and it may not. But the point is you did it, and either way, you made memories. Make a note of what worked and what didn’t for future parties.
When the year is right for your child (and don’t feel bad if this year isn’t right; we know our kids the best), throw out all the ‘shoulds’ regarding a kid’s birthday party and build it around your child. The memories you make will be priceless.
Gillian Marchenko is a Chicago mom and freelance writer. She has penned a memoir about special needs, Sun Shine Down.
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