4 Tips to Make Your Autistic Child's Birthday Party a Success

Bounce House Party

When our son was little, we did our very best to make his birthday celebrations "just like everyone else's."  That worked out just fine -- for a very short while.  But it soon became clear that birthday parties for a child on the spectrum needed some modifications.  After a few years, we became pretty good at setting ourselves up for success!  These tips come from our hard-won successes, and relate to the parties we held from the time Tom was three years old until he was about eleven.

Think About Your Actual Child's Needs and Preferences

This may sound obvious, but in the middle class American world most children's birthday parties follow only a very few models. 

  • Most are held at a party venue (think "Chuckie Cheese");
  • Most involve a fair amount of loud noise (think bowling alleys);
  • Most require that parents invite an entire class -- which, depending upon the school and the type of class, can range from 9 or 10 to 23 children;
  • Most run precisely two hours.

None of these things are likely to be pleasant or even possible for a child on the autism spectrum!  Consider the possibility of holding a party at home, quietly, with a handful of children -- for a shorter duration.  Even better, consider asking your child what he or she would enjoy, and/or observing your child's preferences before going with whatever the typical kids are doing.

Choose Universally Enjoyable Activities. 

You can't host a child's birthday party without having some sort of activity planned.  And it's very unlikely you'll be hosting an autistic child's birthday party without including some autistic kids.  To make the party fun for everyone, it's very important to choose activities that everyone can enjoy.


Your individual child may be a fabulous swimmer, bowler, skater, or singer but it's likely that some of the kids at the party (particularly kids with autism) have never been to a pool, bowling alley, etc.  Your child may be able to sit through a performance of "Mad Science," but many kids with autism can't. 

What's the solution?  If you can possible afford it, I highly recommend some form of "bounce house" for your child's party -- carefully supervised by multiple adults.  Why "bounce house?"  It's a wonderful sensory experience.  It's fun for kids with all levels of physical ability, at all developmental stages, with and without sensory needs.  It's non-competitive.  It caters to kids who like to do the same thing over and over again, and to kids who like to challenge themselves.  The only bummer: it can be pricey -- so do shop around for options!

Serve a Variety of Fun Foods Including Gluten and Casein Free Options. 

Many children with autism are on gluten and/or casein and/or chemical free diets.

  Birthday party standards (pizza, cake, ice cream) are a veritable feast of gluten, casein, and chemicals.  Make it easy for kids and parents to choose healthy alternatives.

Know Who Will Be Helping You Run and Manage the Party and Party Goers

It is standard procedure for parents of very young children to stay at a birthday party with their child.  Once children are past kindergarten age, however, parents drop off and leave.  Either way, parents tend to see parties as a time to let the birthday boy or girl's mom and dad take charge while they do something else.  Even when they're present, they're more likely to chat with other adults than take a hand with managing kids. 

If you have a houseful (or yard full or bowling alley full) of autistic children (with or without typically developing peers) you absolutely cannot handle everything on your own or with a spouse.  You need parents to supervise and manage their own autistic children, help you set up and handle events and refreshments, and ensure that every child is safe and happy.  Some kids will have a hard time no matter how hard you work to make a great experience -- and those kids need an assigned adult to help them find an alternative place or activity while they calm down.

Let parents know, ahead of time, that you need their involvement with their own autistic child to ensure that their child is having fun and staying in the general vicinity of the party.  Recruit at least a couple of additional adults to work with you, so one person can help with a difficult moment while the other keeps the party on track.

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