Should you throw a birthday party for your child with special needs?
When the time is right… YES!
We did it. We finally had a ‘friend’ birthday party for our daughter Evangeline when she turned eight years old a couple of weeks ago.
I know some of you are probably thinking, ‘why is this even a question?’
I get it. I really do. Of course all kids deserve parties. But for some of us, it just isn’t that simple.
The thought of a party frightened me. I wanted the party to be fun for her but I worried it would all be too much. Evangeline has a dual diagnosis of Down syndrome and autism, she can get overwhelmed easily, and so far at best hasn’t shown much interest in her birthdays; presents, singing, the whole thing. At worst, she gets spooked by it all. She hates lit candles, and for some reason doesn’t care for the birthday song.
Except for cake. This little chick loves cake.
But I wanted a friend party for her because nonverbal doesn’t mean she doesn’t understand. I wanted to show her we were gathering to celebrate HER. I wanted her to feel our love, to know how thankful we were to have her as our daughter, sister, and friend.
I wanted the friend party for my other kids, too. I would hate for them to wonder why they get some things and my kids with special needs don’t. They know it is Evie’s birthday. They love her. They want to celebrate her. To them, she isn’t Evangeline with Down syndrome and autism. She’s simply Evangeline, their sister.
I wanted the friend party for the people in the world who still, for some mind-boggling reason in 2014, don’t think individuals with disabilities deserve things like inclusion in schools and communities, birthday parties, and yes, sadly sometimes, even life itself.
And I wanted the friend party for me. Because I worry that sometimes our family life gets too small, because things like friend birthday parties can be difficult and disappointing and so we choose not to do them. We don’t want to fail. We don’t want bad memories for our children. We don’t want bad memories for us.
But I fought those feelings, and planned a party. And we attempted to do it in a way that would be enjoyable for all the kids who would attend, both special needs and typically developing.
We had it at our church. The room is set up for kids with special needs. The building has an elevator and ramps and a quiet room for people who need a break. Plus, Evangeline knows the space and is comfortable in it. She is used to a lot of noise there and a little chaos because she attends Sunday school every week. I wanted to make sure there was enough room for everyone and that our little one was at ease. This space was perfect. If you don’t have a space like this available in your community, get creative. Maybe a room at the library would work, or perhaps your home is big enough. Just think about how many kids could comfortably fit and then invite like three less.
Evangeline’s teacher, Ms. Stephanie, attended! She was a great help and is an amazing advocate for Evie. I’m so glad we invited a few adults who love Evie and who could pitch in.
We had snacks and mini cupcakes, but overall didn’t make a big deal over food. On the invitation I made it clear that a full meal wouldn’t be provided. Eating can be stressful for some kids, and others may get nourishment through tube feeding, or have certain allergies. So we played down eating and just put out things like yogurt and grapes for people to snack on.
We threw out the birthday song and candles. Evie doesn’t like it, so we didn’t do it. But I did plan a few activities: coloring sheets on the tables, a ‘pin the hat on Barney‘ game without blindfolds that every child could participate in, even if that meant they needed help, and a dance time complete with “Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” and “The Hokey Pokey.” Again, kids could participate or not, and the ones who preferred being in another room during that time were paired up with a buddy willing to initiate quiet activities or just to hang out. (My husband wants everyone to know that although he could only find neon pink poster board, he still drew a kick-butt Barney free hand.)
About seven or eight kids attended with their parents, plus our family, and some other friends. We all had a great time! Afterwards, we helped Evangeline open up her gifts one at a time throughout the next few days. That worked out way better than overwhelming her at the party, and attempting to get all the kids to sit and watch. At the end of the party, each child received a goody bag with stuff Evangeline likes; chocolate, a harmonica (kid loves music!), and bubbles. When I throw kids’ parties, I do it Dollar Store style!
It was a great day! So great, that we were too busy having fun to get any pictures with the birthday girl as a family.
But the memories are in our hearts.
And they are good ones.
Should you have a birthday party for your child with special needs? A resounding yes. You can do it! When the year is right for your little one (and don’t feel bad if this year isn’t right. I don’t think the party would have been as successful last year. No mom guilt, now. We know our kids the best), just throw out all the ‘shoulds’ you can think of regarding a kid’s birthday party and build it around your child. I’m cheering for you! So is Evangeline!