8 Steps to a Successful Special Needs Birthday Party
by Shannon Aronin on October 7th, 2015

If you’ve done something once, that totally counts as being an expert, right? Last month we threw my son a fantastic Minecraft themed 8th birthday party. It broke my heart that he had not been invited to a single party or playdate last year. But this year he has FRIENDS. That alone was worth a celebration. At a recent meeting with his school, Boo’s counselor admitted they were worried about us; so were we! Here are some Pro Tips if you too want to throw your child and his friends in special education a birthday party.  
  1. The Guest List: He attends a California non-public school, so all of the students are receiving special education services from their local public school district. He is one of ten students in grades 1-5, and there are three teachers in this mixed-age group classroom. Seven of the nine other students attended. They all also brought at least one adult. I was floored we got such a great response. Make sure you check in with the teacher early to coordinate and invite everyone. I don’t care if your kid says they don’t want to invite that one kid, I don’t care what that kid has done, you invite that kid. We also let Boo invite kids from his integrated after-school program, and two stopped by. His new friend he met at a grocery store, a family friend, and his uncle and aunts. Make sure the adults stay. Chuckee Cheese rules were in effect: if you came with a kid, you leave with that kid.
2.  Location: The advantage of hosting it somewhere else is a party planner and no clean-up.But if you can have it at home, the advantage is home turf. You are in control of the space. You have a better ability to manage the party.

3. Communication: Parents of other special needs kids are just like you. They are afraid their child will have a meltdown. They worry about what will happen at the party, can they do anything to prepare for the stimulation? Or what if there won’t be food they can eat there.? The idea of leaving their unpredictable bundle of joy alone at a party is horrifying. I created very simple invitations that told parents what the activity was going to be and at what time, what we would be serving (pizza, cake & ice cream). It stated that families and guardians were encouraged to stay, please let us know if you have any dietary restrictions, and please let us know if you have any concerns at all. Just open yourself up to it. No one came to us with concerns, but it lets the other parents know you are thinking about their daunting task of taking their child to a party.

4. Activity: We had considered a piñata. His teacher rightly asked if we were sure we wanted to give these kids a stick? Ultimately we went with a “game truck”? Have you heard about these things? In Southern California we went with Extreme Game Truck. It’s basically a stocked arcade on wheels. It cost $300 for 2 hours on a Saturday afternoon. I know, I know, can’t they just enjoy the party with each other without video games? No. You already know that. It’s his party, he can game if he wants to. It kept the kids entertained, relatively quiet, calm, happy and contained.

5. Food: Bad pizza is really cheap, I know. Good pizza is worth it though. I’m from New York. I’m so glad we ponied up. They cut us a discount better than our second favorite pizza place, so shout-out to Tony’s. Ask for the pies to be sliced in twelfths. Kids don’t eat much at parties. We expected and had approximately 25 people. We ordered eight pies, and that was way too many. Get four or five. Instead of cake AND ice cream, and this also removes any guilt about not being able to produce the kind of cake show quality masterpieces we used to get in Texas from having friends who baked, get an ice cream cake. I grew up with Carvel, but the closest one was an hour and a half away. We LOVED Cold Stone Creamery’s cake. For drinks we did Capri Suns and  waters, keep it simple.

6. To open gifts or not open gifts: Consider this question carefully. There is no right or wrong answer. For example, this year I was leaning towards not opening them during the party. That was until I learned that it was a big deal that one of the kids in the class was going to be able to bring a gift. Well then I had to, I mean hello. One of the best pieces of advice I ever got in life, and a really big help in fundraising, is never take away someone else’s opportunity to be generous. You need to confirm this decision day of. Try to ascertain that everyone did indeed bring a gift before you go forward if you do. Lots of families don’t open gifts at the party anymore, and with all the stimulation, I think your guests will understand. If it’s a non-starter, feel free to put it in the invite. The more information everyone has to prep the kids the better. We also did family gifts separately, and our family friend who came brought an extremely generous gift that we did separately as well. Make sure you have someone jotting down who gave what. Help your child use his manners. First open card, read it. Then open gift. Look giver in the eye and say thank you. Rehearse what will happen with your child.

7. Time: If I am hosting a party, and you come early, then we cannot be friends. Thankfully none of our guests were early. We had enough RSVPs in that I wasn’t fretting over it. We scheduled the party for 4 hours, from 1:00-5:00 PM. I know, that’s super long. But hear me out. These kids need time. Rushing things will make chaos even more chaotic. So everyone arrived by 1:30. We all ate pizza. The truck was here from 2:00– 4:00 PM. We warned the kids at 3:30, 3:40, 3:45, 3:50, and 3:55. I can’t suggest this enough. WARN THEM before ending a preferred activity. After the truck, we sang, ate cake, and opened presents. Everyone left at a leisurely pace. My son got testy a time or two -- patience, patience, he is not ungrateful, he was experiencing sensory overload. Hopefully a helpful guest will remind you of this when they see you counting your breaths… Maybe. Or, it’s just his birthday and he’s a kid hopped up on sugar now too, that’s also possible. Either way, try really hard to let things go. You might fail. That’s ok.  But I am really pleased to say that not one person had a full blown meltdown, including me. In fact, I don’t think a stranger would have necessarily known how hard these kids were working at employing social skills they learned at school!

8. Thank You Notes: We are still working on them. Have patience and cut yourself some slack. Maybe do family first. You have to get them out, but half the kids have fine motor delays. No one will die if he types them, he will be sincerely grateful and maybe won’t always hate writing thank you notes. It is taking a looooong time. I am counting on other parents who get it not judging me.

All in all, it wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be. I’m so glad we had this wonderful experience, and I can’t wait to do it again next year.

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