The season of holidays, parties, and family gatherings is here, and I am excited. I have an Armenian background, and, trust me, we party! As the mom of a child with autism, though, I am aware that getting through grownup parties and gatherings can be quite stressful for Alex. The look, smell, and feel of a new place, and the big groups that come with them, are an overload for kids with special needs. The option of just getting a sitter can be tempting and there are times that option is the most appropriate, but I usually opt to bring Alex along. At the end of the day, these parties are growing experiences for him. I also want to ensure that I don’t set the precedent of letting him stay home and shutting himself away from the world.
To make parties as comfortable as possible for him (and us parents!), I always rely on a checklist of things for before and during our outings. Most of these points rely on understanding and respecting each other. Each point took us a long time to master, and targets the issues Alex struggles with most. Every child is different, but a lot of these can be modified to fit your own child’s specific needs.
1. Before heading out, have a conversation about what to expect.
No matter where we go, I made it a habit to always detail what the party will be like to Alex: how the place will look, who will be there, and what we will be doing. I also give him a time frame of when we will be leaving, and make sure to stick to that. No matter how well he does at a party, as hours go by, it gets tougher for him to hang in. If I don’t know the details of any of those things, I let him know, but try to ease his worry by explaining what I think it might be like. This creates an honest dialogue and lets him mentally prepare himself for what’s to come. A lot of times we put together a list of activities he can do there, like play computer/iPad games or physical games like Uno.
2. Set one social skills goal.
Social skills are a tough, but parties are a great opportunity to face some of those challenges that involve interacting with others. We set one goal for each party, and a reward. It can be something simple like sitting at the table or with a small group for 15 min, or say hello to everybody. For parties that are shorter, or with more familiar people, we might go for a bigger goal, like talking to another kid at the party. Goal choice also depends on where his difficulties are at the moment.
I always have to remember that one goal is our limit right now, though. Great behavior is awesome, but sometimes we get caught up with the excitement that our special needs kid is excelling and push a bit too far. With Alex, he might do super well and then burn out.
3. Establish a safe space.
No matter where we go, whether it is my sister’s house or an apartment I’ve never visited before, I always designate a quiet, calm place for Alex as his safe space. This is easy when we are at my sister’s, but even when I’m somewhere new, I still (always graciously, and sometimes in advance) ask the host if there is an area where he can go to be alone and recharge throughout the event. This used to be difficult for me, as people can be thrown off by this sort of request, but I take comfort in the fact that this is what is best for my child. Part of what it means to have a child with special needs is to approach the issue without shame and with honesty. In fact, people have often gone out of their way to help out.
4. Bring an object of comfort.
One of the most important things for Alex is physical comfort. He has a few objects at home that he keeps by his side whenever he can. He used to love stress balls, and now has a purple plastic snake from San Francisco’s Chinatown. Additionally, an iPad, computer, and chargers are a must. For long car rides home, I always take his favorite blanket and pillow. He knows that given his age, he cannot bring his blanket or pillow to the party, but after a tiring night, and to balance out the uncomfortable car ride, he deserves to have his comfort objects. I know a lot of other kids with autism also love headphones, so like I said earlier, it really differs kid to kid.
5. Bring favorite food and water if necessary.
Alex has tons of limitations and sensitivities on what he eats, like many kids with autism. To avoid meltdowns due to hunger and to make sure he enjoys the party too, I bring some of his favorite foods. While I may offer him to try to eat at least one thing with everyone, I always have his food packed too. Lately, Alex has also developed intolerance to the taste of water except for one particular brand. We are working on changing this and getting back to drinking every kind of water, but for now, I bring his Arrowhead water with us. That way, he (or me and my husband for that matter) doesn’t have to worry.
I want to note that if you’re a parent of a special needs child, you know how grating it can be to receive criticism/advice from loved ones who don’t have a full view of the situation. A common theme for me is that being so accommodating is not going to prepare a child for the real world. And let me tell you, while I have learned to accept the misguided criticisms with grace, it can be really hard to not let that get to me. I am always assessing and reassessing my approaches with Alex and consistently consult with counselors, teachers, and other parents in the special needs community. My goal is to make sure I’m setting Alex up for success. I pick my battles with family and friends in terms of explaining a parenting choice, but if I notice a recurring observation, I explore it instead of ignoring it.
♡ Zuma A.