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Birthday Parties with Special Needs

Raising a child with a special need certainly has its ups and downs. An impending birthday party, either for your child or a peer, can be a roller coaster ride of emotions for both you and your child. Will anybody show up? Will my child be able to participate? Will my child have a meltdown? These concerns are all natural, but with creative planning and realistic expectations, your child can be a part of the fun.

If you are hosting

Let your child guide the planning. What does your child like? What are they able to do? If your child doesn’t like chaos on a daily basis, they certainly won’t have fun with a house full of kids amped up on cake and ice cream! Not all parties have to look the same. Depending on the need or the situation, consider inviting just one or two children over for a birthday dinner, or go to a concert or sporting event. You can still decorate and get a cake, even if there are only a few guests to make it their special day.

Be realistic about the timeframe. The party doesn’t have to last three hours, and you don’t have to provide a meal for the kids! One hour of a great time is better than two hours that feels like ten. If there are rituals or medications built in to your schedule, make sure to plan your party around it. Nothing spoils the fun like a child yelling at the kids to be quiet because it’s 2 o’clock and their favorite show is on, or having to pull away the birthday child because it’s time for medication.

When your child gets invited

When a party invitation comes home, it can be so exciting! Your child was invited to a birthday party! Someone likes them! Then enthusiasm gets replaced with worry. What if my child has to use the bathroom? What if they serve red dye? What if they do a physical activity? These concerns are normal, and it will help to talk with the party hosts. Stick with facts of what would happen instead of what could happen. For example, would contact with latex party balloons cause a serious problem? Speak up. Are there triggers that would cause a seizure or meltdown? Share this information with the host. If it does look like something your child will not be able to attend, offer another time your child can celebrate, or maybe come for the beginning or ending of the party.

After you’ve talked with the host family about your child, you will get a better feel for how they will respond to your child. If it would help your child to visit the house before party day, ask if that would be possible. Or, could you go a little earlier than party time to help your child adjust to the surroundings? Would it be all right if you could stay for a bit? Most parents will not turn down help for a child’s party, especially if the party is at an alternate location. More than likely, it will make the host feel better having you there for your child. The trick is to make sure you take a back seat to the fun; give your child some room to be with the other children without you hovering.

If something does go wrong, and it might, remember your child’s perspective. Birthday parties come with a lot of pomp and circumstance. For most children, talking about the big birthday party is exciting and part of the fun. For some children with social disabilities, however, it only increases the anxiety, to the point that the idea of going to the birthday party becomes traumatic. In this case, downplay the party, listing it as one of the errands taking place that day. Go to the gas station, run by the party, stop in. Tell your child you are stopping by the party for 15 minutes; then it will be time to go to the store. And while it’s easy to get sad that your child might only stay for 15 minutes, at least they were there for 15 minutes!

If your child does have a meltdown, it can be frustrating for you, but confusing for the birthday child. As much as you might want to convince your child to stay, or even demand that they stay, consider the birthday girl/boy. Is this really what you want them to remember about their party? Cut your losses, thank the host and stay positive. While your instinct may be to start crying, put that on hold for later. Consider the fact that your child tried to attend the party, which in itself may have been a new accomplishment! If it’s possible, talk with your child about what went wrong, and try to use this as a teachable moment.

If you know a child with a special need is coming to your party

First, on behalf of parents of children with disabilities everywhere, thank you. Thank you for including our child and know we will do everything we can to help you! Second, thanks again! Third, if you have any questions, just ask, even if you do not know us very well. Invite us to stay for coffee during the party.

If the party is taking place at laser tag, it is possible that our child cannot attend. However, we can easily stop by and give it a shot, or join in where it is appropriate and possible. If a tantrum or seizure does take place, offer assistance, and if it is not needed, remember the other children are watching you for your reaction.

The biggest mistake is not inviting a child because you aren’t sure how to handle the situation. While the hurt is not intentional, being left out does sting, whether the child has a disability or not. Parents know their kids cannot get invited to everything, but if you find yourself hesitating if you should invite a child simply because of a disability, please think again. Consider the classic question: “What if it was my child?” Then go from there!

Julia is a freelance writer and works with SUNY Fredonia in the Education Department. She has learned not to use birthday candles that sparkle or continue to re-light! Contact her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


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