Making the party fit your 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 melt down? 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, a house full of kids amped up on cake and ice-cream won’t work. 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.

If you are hoping to use the party as a springboard for friendships, consider inviting several children, but connect with parents ahead of time. This way, you will have a better idea of who is planning on attending. If you are inviting your child’s entire class, consider what activities will be fun and appropriate for all invited. Ask your child’s teacher for ideas.  Your local YMCA probably offers packages including swimming, gymnastics, and open gym parties. Consider your local hobby store or nearby museums, as they usually offer party packages as well.   

Be realistic about the time frame! 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 two o’clock and their favorite show is on, or having to pull away the birthday child because it’s time for medication. 

When they get invited… 

When a party invitation comes home it can be so exciting! Your child was invited to a birthday party! Someone likes them! Then comes worry. What if they serve red dye? What if they do a physical activity? Talk with the party hosts to get a feel for the party, and share your concerns. 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. 

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, down play the party, listing it as one of the errands taking place that day. Go to the grocery store, the drug store, then run by the party and stop in. Tell your child you are stopping by the party for fifteen minutes and see if they want to stay longer.  

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? 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 use this as a teachable moment.  

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

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. If you have any questions, just ask, even if you don’t 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 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 relight! Contact her at