Welcome to the March edition of Ask Dr. Emily!

We often receive questions that we want to share with all our readers. To help with this, Dr. Emily Neuhaus, a clinical psychologist at Seattle Children’s Autism Center, will share insights in a question and answer format.

We welcome you to send us your questions and Dr. Neuhaus will do her best to answer them each month. Send your questions to theautismblog@seattlechildrens.org.

Lynn Dixon, a local writer, and parent, recently published an awesome article entitled “How to have a great birthday party for a child with autism or sensory challenges” .

It’s a great topic, and Lynn’s article has sparked some interesting conversations around our clinic. Birthday parties and similar celebrations can be really special, but can also be really stressful for kids and adults! So how can you set your child up for success at a special event like this?

Let’s talk about a few different approaches for supporting kids during these times. A first strategy relates to thoughtful planning. During a birthday party, the goal is to celebrate a unique child with a unique personality, interests, and preferences, so think specifically about their wishes and what they’d enjoy. Although some kids really enjoy being somewhere loud with music and lots of activity, other kids find this really overwhelming. What setting would be the most fun for your child – your home, a park, a play area, or somewhere else? How many people would they prefer to have attended – lots of classmates or just a few special folks? What level of activity and stimulation would they enjoy – a string of activities/games or a low-key get-together to play with preferred toys? Some common aspects of parties (like being the center of attention or being sung to) might not feel like the best fit for you child and that’s okay – you get to choose what you include in your party!

A second strategy is to make sure your child has an out, meaning that they can easily escape the noise and activity of the party to take a break if they become overwhelmed. If there’s room, you might identify a calm spot (e.g., a quiet room in your home, an empty spot at the edge of the playground) ahead of time so that you and your child both know where to head for a breather. You can also structure the agenda so it includes breaks or lower pressure activities so there’s a chance to decompress. For instance, if you really want to sing a birthday song to your child as a group but worry it’s overstimulating, you might “sandwich” it between periods of low-key play time.

Third, if this is a new experience for your child, consider whether some preparation or practice might be helpful before the real party. Maybe you already use social stories to help your child prepare for new experiences – consider finding or making a “birthday party” social story to help your child know what to anticipate. Role-playing with your child is another option; if you can, you might even consider recruiting a sibling or friend to help them practice for the routine. Watching a video or reading a book with a birthday party scene is another way to help them get familiar with the idea.

Finally, no matter how much we plan, there’s never any guarantee that events will go 100% the way we expect, so keeping a flexible mindset is often the key to having the best time. Have fun!