There are two children lying on the floor, one picking up debris and shovelling it into his mouth, one with a baseball cap over her face. Another girl sits at the table repeating “Anyone for chocolate cake?” in monotones, while a boy sticks two fingers in his ears and makes a moaning noise. Several other kids sit and gawp at the scene. The child at the head of table has a cake covered in lit candles in front of her, sucking in air.
Seven years ago, to my mind, this would’ve been a problem posed in an Edward de Bono lateral thinking exercise, followed by the question: How did this happen? But, then 7 years ago, I didn’t know my son was severely autistic.
This, of course, is simply a description of a party my son attended with a group of other ASD kids. Almost every aspect of the autism spectrum was acted out impeccably. The ‘chocolate cake’ girl’s echolalia rang out until we were waved off with party bags and for heaven knows how long afterwards. The vacuum cleaner on the floor demonstrated ‘pica,’ if any of us was unaware what that was. The baseball cap and fingers in the ears (my son) shouted of sensory issues and the birthday girl’s ignorance of all her guests as she tried to suck out the lit candles, showed a fantastic case of ‘own agenda.’ This was a lesson in autism spectrum disorders and its proclivities.
The party lasted 2 hours, punctuated by hyperactive behaviours, sensory difficulties and two spectacular meltdowns.
Parties and social gatherings cause some of the greatest stresses in the lives of ASD kids – and, of course, their parents/caregivers. The safe predictability of daily living through routines and rituals is replaced by what autistic children fear – change and the unexpected. Balloons popping, other children screaming and laughter of parents, all add to the maelstrom. Sensitivities to noise, smells and sights are all challenged at parties from party foods and different household cleaning scents to bright lighting. Top this with a series of unknown or unexpected games, requiring language and communication skills – and you’re fast approaching an emotional outburst or meltdown for many ASD kids.
Meltdowns – emotional outbursts – have a purpose and should help inform us how to better manage future gatherings. A meltdown can seem ‘out of the blue’ in some autistic children, leaving hosts bewildered as to how to manage the situation, especially if the parents/caregivers are not at immediately at hand. Unfortunately, the fallout can be enough to send us into exile with some friends (are they really friends then?) or leave us vowing never to attend any party with our ASD child again.
Yet parties and social gatherings, although dreaded by many parents/caregivers, have the potential to be some of the most useful experiences to enable ASD kids to develop socially and physically. But they need careful planning and an understanding that every party is a triumph for each child, no matter how short or long they manage to stay. Understanding that 15 minutes for one child is the equivalent to 2 hours for another is information that hosts of non-spectrum children need to have – and this involves effective communication from parents/caregivers. That first 15 minutes can be extended over time; if it’s a good experience, the child will want to repeat it.
Autistic kids can socially develop through exposure to role modelling from non-spectrum children at parties. Unlike non-spectrum children, body language and verbal communication aren’t learned by osmosis by ASD kids, but they can observe these at social gatherings. Although they often appear to be taking no notice, parents/caregivers may see an expansion of their children’s repertoire of behaviours which demonstrate they are mimicking observed behaviours.
In addition, new games and experiences can extend ASD children’s skills. Some ASD children do respond to the excitement of other kids and participate in activities that even their parents and caregivers couldn’t have anticipated. Balance, hand-eye co-ordination and muscular strength are just some of the areas that may be developed. This step-by-step progression is something we hope for our autistic children, so parties should be seen as great opportunities for ASD kids.
The tricky part, of course, is how to create parties and social gatherings that autistic children can manage. Often activities for non-spectrum kids depend on chronological age as a yardstick to guide what’s appropriate. This isn’t useful for ASD children, whose understanding of the social world can be enormously varied from the socially inept higher functioning child who has an encyclopaedic knowledge of a chosen subject, to the intellectually impaired child with learning difficulties.
Structure is key to any parties or similar events, since it gives predictability and lessens any surprises, which can distress some ASD kids greatly. Even teens with higher functioning autism long for structure on social occasions. Simon Smith, who has Asperger syndrome and spoke at The Autism Show in London, likened socialising to “…being in a play where everyone else has a script and you don’t.” The prospect of stretches of time ‘chatting’ at parties can seem not only daunting, but many ASD teens don’t understand why it’s supposed to be entertaining in any way.
Another important facet is information, both from parents/caregivers to the party hosts about the child and vice versa about the party itself. If ASD kids and teens are aware of what’s going to happen, this will diminish their anxieties, which in turn reduces the likelihood of meltdowns.
In my book ‘Party Planning for Children and Teens on the Autism Spectrum: How to avoid Meltdowns and have fun!’ I introduce a range of strategies for parties from age two years up to teens. As well as giving ideas about planning activities according to information from parents/caregivers, I try to enable hosts to marry together the abilities of their ASD guests to games or activities. There are separate chapters on party food (to manage special diets) and party bags, which can prove difficult. There’s an extensive chapter about teens, with some exploration of adolescence and ASD, plus ideas about how to structure parties or social gatherings for higher functioning ASD teens – a minefield, indeed!
Despite all your efforts and planning, autistic behaviours still will be present, of course – and emotional outbursts will happen, so I include a section on what to do when things go wrong. I also address the issues for parents who don’t have ASD kids but want to invite one/two to a party with confidence – there’s a box at the end of each chapter for those hosts.
Perhaps the most important thing to take from this blog is that, although stressful to ASD kids/teens, parties can be managed to enable their social development and communication – and even have fun!
Book: Kate E. Reynolds ‘Party Planning for Children and Teens on the Autism Spectrum: how to avoid meltdowns and have fun!’ (2012) Jessica Kingsley Publishing, London
Kate Reynolds worked for the UK’s National Health Service for 18 years in several locations as a Registered General Nurse, counsellor, trainer of health professionals and health promotion consultant. She has a first degree from Bristol University and two Postgraduate Diplomas, in Health Education and Counselling. She has travelled extensively to the US and particularly in South East Asia. She now lives in Wiltshire, UK with her two children, Francesca and Jude.
Kate writes blogs and answer Agony Aunt questions on her website:
Kate’s second book for Jessica Kingsley Publishing is expected to be published in June 2013.