7 Ways We Try to Make Parties Less Overwhelming for Our Son With Autism
My son Vedant’s first birthday was a grand affair for us — magicians, balloon makers, face painting, clowns, mascots, the whole nine yards. We celebrated each of his birthdays with just as much enthusiasm, expecting that soon our son would be dictating how he wanted his birthday to be celebrated. But over time, he didn’t seem interested in having birthday parties. He never asked for gifts or showed interest in the gifts he received. That’s when we realized we don’t have to follow the crowd and do what is expected on birthdays. We instead decided to do what we knew our son would enjoy any day of the week and just give him an overdose of that experience on his special day. Now we book a night at an indoor water park and let him have a field day. He loves it.
Though this took care of the anxiety of his birthday, there were still other social gatherings, like BBQ parties, birthdays of other kids, Christmas, Halloween parties and more. At times, Vedant would cry, try to escape the gathering, or try to take us back to the car. At first, we stopped going to these gatherings. But I realized this wasn’t a solution; we wanted Vedant to learn how to cope at these gatherings, and we wanted to help him with that.
Over time, my husband and I came up with a few ways to help our son with social gatherings:
1. Change expectations: This was the biggest change we made. We could not go into a party expecting that our son would sit down with other kids and play a board game or run around playing tag. We had to accept that it’s going to be tough on him being around so many people and so much noise, and that it’s going to be some work for us to help keep him calm. When this expectation changed, we were more prepared.
2. Define a baseline: This was the second most important thing we needed to agree upon. We needed to figure out how much is too much for him. Some parties can get really noisy, and some can be relatively laid-back. We had to know when it was time for us to thank the host and leave. We needed to ensure that the experience was at least tolerable, if not enjoyable, for our son so he would not be anxious the next time he was in a social situation.
3. “First in, last out” is not important: I told the host every time that we would come in late and leave early. That minimized the stress for us because the duration was short and sweet, and it gave our son the opportunity to be at a fun event but not get overwhelmed by it. We try to leave before it gets too much for him. As he gets used to being in situations like these, we can slowly start to stay longer and enjoy more.
4. Take turns: To avoid the sensory overload, Vedant had tried to escape some parties. So my husband and I decided to split time. While I spent the first 15 minutes keeping an eye on our son, my husband could hang out with his friends, and then we switched roles. This strategy has worked really well for us. This way, we are able to catch up with our friends and also not let our son feel insecure or unattended. One of us is always with him or watching over him.
5. Participating is not mandatory: My son never showed interest in his own birthday, so he may not be excited about someone else’s. I stopped dragging him around the birthday cake, forcing him to sing, clap, and pose for pictures. Previously, I would try to push him to do that because I thought that’s what kids do. We both ended up being upset. Now that I’ve stopped, I notice he gets excited watching other kids and sometimes claps on his own. He is more invested when it’s not imposed on him. Same for party games. I know he doesn’t like getting his face painted or being inside a bouncy castle so I don’t push him anymore. I encourage him, I want him to experience and try something new, but not by making him uncomfortable. I would rather have him leave the place feeling happy and relaxed than upset and stressed.
6. Try sensory activities: A sensory toy can keep my son calm for a while, so I carry one with me. This keeps Vedant engaged and more in control. Whatever sensory diet I can think of, I offer him that every now and then — a tight hug, a swirl or two, tickles, some calming music — while he tries to cope in a challenging environment.
7. Talk about it: When we go to a social gathering, I make sure I talk to Vedant about it on our way to the venue. I tell him where we are going, the people we’ll meet, what the party’s about, and what to expect there. I don’t know if he understands everything, though I hope he does or one day will, but I don’t want him to be taken by surprise when we arrive at the party. I also make it a point to excitedly talk about what all we did at the party once we are back home, too.
The strategies we use seem to be working well, but then there are always days when, like any other kid, he throws us a surprise. But we will continue to work through any challenges and keep trying.
Follow this journey on Tulika’s blog.