How to have a great birthday party for a child with autism or sensory challenges
Adrian and Eva celebrate at sensory-friendly gym We Rock The Spectrum.
PHOTO: JOSHUA HUSTON
Birthdays can be fun, memorable celebrations to mark another year in your child’s life.
They can also be stressful, overwhelming and not worth the trouble or expense.
This is especially true for families whose kids are on the autism spectrum or have sensory processing challenges. For them, throwing a successful party and finding a suitable place to do it is an annual feat.
My older son is on the autism spectrum. Our family’s track record on parties is a mix of disasters and triumphs.
“Birthday parties can be challenging for a lot of kids,” says Dr. Emily Neuhaus, a clinical psychologist at Seattle Children’s Autism Center and contributor to the popular Autism Blog.
“Aspects that could be harder for kids with autism include the need to roll with changes that pop up, pressure to tolerate settings that can be really loud and hectic, and the increased social demands.”
Traditional birthday parties — and the majority of party venues — are by definition loud and hectic. Many parents of kids with sensory challenges choose to celebrate at home instead, where there is less stimulation.
While that’s a perfectly valid choice, Dr. Neuhaus points out, there are also benefits to celebrating in public:
“Birthday parties in the community let kids with autism have an experience that many of their peers will also have. They also provide an opportunity to experience something new and different.”
Fortunately, there are an increasing number of “sensory-friendly” options in Seattle. These include indoor play spaces specifically designed for kids on the spectrum and mainstay museums committed to being more accessible.
Laura Porto Stockwell’s biggest fear around throwing a birthday party for her 10-old-son on the autism spectrum is that no one will show up.
“I feel compelled to throw a really fun party,” she says.
She chose Pacific Science Center for her son’s birthday party for several reasons. Not only are PSC’s science-filled parties super engaging (they make instant ice cream out of liquid nitrogen), they offer the right sensory environment for her son.
Like many kids on the autism spectrum, he has auditory sensitivities. He also struggles in large groups. The enclosed party rooms at PSC kept the volume down and other museum goers separate, so he only had to interact with his small group of friends.
The party’s main activity, which involved each child designing a rocket of their own and then launching them all together, leant the party just enough structure and social interaction to put her son at ease.
“It allowed him to be part of the group, but not overwhelmed by the group,” Porto Stockwell says.
In planning any child’s birthday party, Dr. Neuhaus emphasizes, “it’s important to think about what scenario is most likely to be fun and enjoyable for that specific child.”
For Marianne Bryan’s daughter, who is on the autism spectrum and loves water, the ideal birthday venue is a swimming pool.
“Ballard pool rental was our [daughter’s] first success at age 11,” Bryan says.
Bryan, who is mom to three kids on the autism spectrum, says the key is being able to rent the entire facility. This allows her to create the best environment to suit each of her kids’ needs.
She keeps the number of attendees low, has the pool staff turn off the music and schedules the first rental of the day to avoid overlapping with other groups. She also reviews a social story with her kids beforehand so they know what to expect.
The two-hour time frame allows for plenty of pool play, as well as cake or snack time afterwards. Bryan’s family is gluten-free, and having the flexibility to bring in her own food is another bonus of pool rental.
Parents often have to consider the needs of more than one child in party planning.
That was the case when it came time to celebrate my younger son’s fourth birthday. We had to find a venue that would be tolerable for my older son as well.
We found the perfect spot in We Rock The Spectrum in Bellevue. Although the gym is designed to meet the sensory needs of kids on the autism spectrum, the climbing wall, trampoline and zip line would appeal to any child (my 4-year-old was thrilled).
PHOTO: JOSHUA HUSTON
Although the gym meets the sensory needs of kids on the autism spectrum, the climbing wall, trampoline and zipline appeal to all kids.
Shirley Sarmiento-Blaha, the gym’s owner and mother of twins on the autism spectrum, says that’s the whole point: Kids on or off the autism spectrum shouldn’t have to play separate from one another.
“We’re not just for special needs,” Sarmiento-Blaha says. “We’re a place where everyone can play together.”
Rina Arustamova discovered We Rock The Spectrum through a friend with a child on the autism spectrum. Now she celebrates her son’s birthday there every year and recommends the gym to friends.
“It caters to every little thing a kid would want to do,” says Arustamova.
She loves the variety of gym equipment which appeals to all ages. She also likes that she can invite friends who do have children on the autism spectrum and know they will feel comfortable there.
Sarmiento-Blaha says that parents appreciate the large, open play space, a separate quiet room, and that the entire facility is available to rent. WRTS party packages offer a range of options, from just renting the space to paying for trained staff for children who may need extra support.
For my son’s sixth birthday, we had a small party at home. It was the best choice for that year, and most important, it’s what he wanted.
I still appreciate knowing other options exist, that there are places where either of my sons could celebrate their birthdays in their community without feeling uncomfortable or excluded.
Porto Stockwell shares a similar sentiment:
“Having people show up and celebrate my son is a really big deal. It means a lot to me and it means a lot to him. He feels valued and celebrated.”
That’s what birthday parties are for.
Inclusive party places
Pacific Science Center
Birthday party packages range from $350 for 30 guests for PSC members to $455 for 40 guests for non-members. Choose from a selection of science themes (all include liquid nitrogen ice cream!). Visit pacificsciencecenter.org for more details. Call (206) 443-3611 to schedule and request special accommodations.
Ballard pool rental is $302.50 for a two-hour rental (one hour in the pool and one hour in the lobby) for up to 30 swimmers including adults. Contact Ballard Pool at (206) 684-4094 to make a reservation. Seattle Parks and Rec pools may vary slightly in rates and availability — contact your neighborhood pool to inquire, or visit seattle.gov/parks/find/pools.
We Rock The Spectrum
Birthday party packages range from $150-$250/hour (with a two-hour minimum) for up to 20 kids (additional kids $10 each). All packages include exclusive use of the gym and equipment. Some packages include extra staff support. Call 425-223-5585 or visit werockthespectrumeastsideseattle.com
Lynn Dixon lives in Ballard with her husband and two engaging boys. Her family’s favorite place is anywhere they can spread out, make noise and whack things. She believes there’s no such thing as typical, that every child is gifted and our vulnerabilities are our biggest asset because they connect us to one another.
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