Partying with autism

April 16, 2012
Chelsea Budde

When Denise and I do student services in elementary schools, we are often encouraging the typically-developing students to invite their friends with autism to their social gatherings.  Birthday parties are often a big deal in a little life.  And while some adventurous parents are willing to go all out and invite the whole class, most families opt for a shorter guest list.  Trimming the classmate with special needs can be an easy choice.  Let me offer a few potential perspective changing thoughts on that.

First, inclusion in education shouldn't stop when students leave the classroom.  Part of the reason that inclusive models are practiced in schools is to promote inclusive communities.  We have decided as a society that excluding people on the basis of their disability isn't acceptable.  However, we have also decided that providing supports, whether natural (peers, family members, etc.) or created (Department of Vocational Rehabilitation, educational assistants, etc.), is required for success.  Here are some supports you might use to make your party inclusive of a friend with autism:

  • Ask the friend's mom or dad what triggers for upset the friend might have.  For example, my son hates the "Happy Birthday" song and flash photography.  If we give him a heads-up when we're about to sing, he removes himself to a quiet place until the cake is cut.  And if we turn the flash off when we want to take a group picture, we've avoided causing discomfort.
  • Create a visual schedule.  When attending a party, it's a bummer to bring social deficits and anxiety.  Party-goers with autism will feel more control over the excitement of the day if there's some predictability built in.  The schedule doesn't have to show times, but it could.  Some simple pictures of eating, swimming, game playing, gift opening, or whatever is on the itinerary for the party in a pre-determined order will be helpful.
  • Put the menu on the invitation.  If your friend with autism has any special dietary needs, perhaps mom or dad could send along alternate treats if needed.
  • Understand that people on the autism spectrum have their limit for social excitement, no matter how enjoyable the company and/or event is.  If your friend comes late and leaves early, don't feel like you've failed in your attempt to include.  His/Her attendance at all is a major victory for both of you!

Second, going to extra mile to include a classmate with autism sends powerful messages to everyone involved.  Birthday parties are a celebration of the person of honor, but asking the birthday girl or boy to share her or his spotlight reminds them that it's not all about them.  That's a healthy shift of focus.  It reminds classmates that children with differences are people who enjoy friendship, too, even though they have to work a lot harder at those relationships, often with fewer social tools in their toolboxes.  And parents provide an example of leadership and acceptance when they encourage their birthday girl or boy to go out of their way to include.

Finally, children with autism don't get better at practicing social skills by sitting in an classroom or learning in their bedroom.  They need opportunities to generalize what they're learning about their friends with typical neurology in safe social settings.  You might even find that a family wants to send along a therapist with the child with autism to foster some of those social exchanges.  Jumping in at well-timed moments during a birthday party is a whole lot easier than trying to negotiate the pace of the playground at recess.

Thanks for giving some consideration to your child's next celebration.  Party on!

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