Kids With Autism And Holiday Parties: 6 Tips That Will Help

This is a post in the weekly Autism Hopes series by Lisa Quinones-Fontanez, a mom who blogs  over at AutismWonderland.

Chances are if you invited me or my kid to a party, I’ve declined your invitation. It’s not that we don’t like parties, cake or good company, it’s just that parties are hard – especially holiday parties. My son, Norrin, has autism and parties are sensory overload for him. He’s great one on one, but put him in a room with more than two kids and he’s off in a corner by himself. As for me? I am not the mom who can chat while glancing over at my kid. I am right beside him, the entire time. So when it’s me and Norrin at a party, it’s me and Norrin at a party.

Yesterday was my department holiday party. Some years I take Norrin. Some years I don’t. I wasn’t planning on taking him this year but since it snowed and since his school was cancelled, I felt like I had no choice but to take him. I’ve been at the same company for almost ten years. He’s quite familiar with my office and coworkers. But the holiday party is a different atmosphere. There are spouses and children, music and movies, cakes, candy and balloons. I love my coworkers and they are really good with Norrin. But we still had our challenges and I left with mixed emotions.

Earlier this week, I read an article about including kids with autism in holiday parties. The author, Kathleen O’Grady, made some really great suggestions including how to start a conversation. O’Grady suggested that conversation be prompted with a statement rather than a question. Questions “can be like an exam for some children with autism. If they fail the first question, the conversation is over before it starts.”

The two questions that confuse Norrin the most are: How are you and How old are you? When asked over and over again in an overwhelming situation (like a party), he shuts downs and stops talking. But if you talk to him about what he’s drawing or what he’s looking at – he’s more likely to engage in a conversation.

Yesterday was a learning experience for me and these are The Lessons I Learned After Taking My Autistic Son to a Holiday Party:

Arrive early. Most people like arrive fashionably late for parties. Not me, I like arriving right on time when I’m with Norrin. It allows us the time to familiarize ourself with the layout and the opportunity for Norrin to get comfortable in a new environment. Norrin was the first child at the department holiday party, he got to have his party experience at his own pace without a crowd of kids. By the time all the kids arrived and it became too much, I didn’t feel too bad about leaving before the party ended – Norrin had his fun.

Don’t be scared to ask for accommodations. My department had transformed a conference room into a “Gingerbread” craft room for the kids. Inside they played the Frosty the Snowman movie. Norrin is terrified of Frosty. When I tried to get him into the room, he threw himself on the floor. I didn’t want to ask them to turn off the movie for Norrin’s sake so I had to run into the room, grab a gingerbread man and run back out. Later, when my coworkers asked if Norrin enjoyed the craft room, I explained that he didn’t go in because he was scared. Everyone I told this to, said I should have asked for the movie to be turned off while Norrin was in the room. Next year, if Norrin is still scared, I’ll ask.

Be prepared. Take an extra change of clothes and underwear, just in case. Norrin will be eight next month and he’s fully potty trained during the day. But when he’s excited or over stimulated, he rushes through things. I’ll leave it that, you get the point.

Find a quiet area. Parties can be overwhelming for almost everyone. Find a quiet space to rest for a few moments. When things got to be too much, we returned to my desk where Norrin could sit and play on his iPad for a few minutes before returning to the party.

Put things in perspective. Parties are tough for several reasons. And being around “typical” kids, is one of them – at least for me. Norrin is an only child, autism is all I know. Most days it’s easy to forget. But when I’m around typical kids, I’m reminded of how different Norrin is. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t hurt. I watched as the other boys his age, formed friendships with ease, running reckless around the office. Norrin stayed by my side the whole time.

Norrin may not have ran around with the other boys, but he was gentle with the little ones and was able to share. Norrin didn’t go into the Gingerbread room but he sat still to have his face painted (something he refused to do a few years ago). And many of coworkers talked about how well behaved Norrin was, how big he’d gotten, how much he was talking. They recognized the progress he’s made. And I recognized it too.

Keep trying. Parties are hard for us. But it’ll never get easier if we constantly decline invitations. Like everything else in our lives – parties take practice.

Do you take your kids to parties? How do you manage? Would love to hear your suggestions!

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