Neurodiversity awareness: Hosting parties that all children can enjoy

By Niamh O’ Donnell, PYP SENCo, GEMS International School – Al Khail

‘Tis the season to be jolly and everywhere you turn, festivities are in full swing with music, treats, gifts, decorations and twinkling lights in abundance. Our lives are punctuated throughout the year by many happy occasions when we look forward to celebrating with others.

These events can be wonderful opportunities to strengthen existing relationships, forge new friendships and express shared joy, nevertheless the needs of all guests must be taken into consideration.

As many parents come to realise, our children often have a more active social life than we do ourselves and a steady stream of invitations to birthday parties, class parties and playdates make for an exciting and action-packed schedule for our little ones. While those sweet words “Come to my Party” are always a joy for any child to receive, for the families of a neurodivergent child however, an invitation to a birthday party can also elicit feelings of anxiety and trepidation.

Similarly, when it is time to celebrate their own child’s birthday, they are faced with the dilemma of how to create a party experience that their child will truly enjoy while still conforming to the expected norms of the social ritual; the candles, the cake, the music, the games and the mayhem! Before exploring how we can reduce and hopefully avoid stressful experiences for these families, we must first consider just what exactly is meant by neurodiversity and how can it inform how we approach something as simple as a child’s birthday party?

Neurodiversity is a movement emerged in the 1990’s and suggested that every individual has different neuro-cognitive abilities, different ways of thinking, learning and experiencing the world, and the occurrence of these differences is to be expected. Just as we would find it odd if everyone in the world wore a size 6 shoe or could play the piano equally as well, embracing neurodiversity means we recognise and accept that differences in ability will inevitably occur.

It views the diversity of strengths and challenges as a natural variance in the wide gamut of human capacity, which is to be expected and indeed welcomed in any population. Within this perspective, children who reach cognitive developmental milestones that are considered typical for their age are described as neurotypical (NT) and those whose brain development occurs in ways that are not experienced by the majority of people as neurodivergent (ND).

These learning differences can include ADHD, dyslexia, autism and developmental language disorders to name a few. With current estimates that 15-20% of the world’s population exhibit some form of neurodivergence, it is highly likely that some of the children you know and will invite to your social gatherings will be neurodivergent also.

If you have a child who is neurodivergent, you will understand the love/hate relationship that comes when attending a birthday party. Of course, you want your child to be invited and included by others, you are delighted by the occasion for them to mix with other children their own age and you love to see them smiling and having fun like everyone else. More often than not however, the experience is stressful and overwhelming for both of you.

You might feel worried that other parents will wonder why your child prefers to play on their own or why you choose to stay close to them instead of chatting with the other adults; you might even feel a sense of judgment if your child reacts differently to a song, game or activity at some point in the party.

If you are the parent of a neurotypical child, the hope is that this article will provide some insight into the challenges that a birthday party can bring, as well as some practical tips on how you can support neurodivergent children and their families at the next birthday party you host.

It stands to reason, if we know and can anticipate that some children will experience a birthday party differently from others, we can and should plan our parties to reduce any potential struggles and to make sure everyone feels successful and included. The challenges that come with a birthday party for a neurodivergent child are numerous; crowds of unfamiliar people, new environments, loud noises, sudden noises, food they are not used to and games they do not always know how to play.

Children who find holding a conversation hard or for whom socialising with large groups is difficult may come across as withdrawn or unfriendly. Children who struggle with sharing, taking turns or accepting defeat can appear naughty or rude when in fact they are often trying very hard to join in, but have not yet developed these skills. Once we appreciate that seemingly routine experiences at a birthday party can be overwhelming and even upsetting for some children, we can start to view the party experience from a perspective that is not our own and can also encourage other children to do so. This is the essence of neurodiversity affirming practice; we seek to understand, to support and to embrace difference for the benefit of all.

Knowing that parents of neurodivergent children face this struggle several times a year, we invited Grainne Boyle, Director of Insights Psychology, to speak at our parent coffee morning on hosting neurodiversity affirming birthday parties. Grainne highlighted the importance of embracing neurodiversity as a way of supporting children who learn differently, but also as a valuable means of teaching all children to expect and value difference creating more compassionate communities in our society generally.

She outlined the enormous difference that a few small thoughtful changes can make to the experience of neurodivergent children and their parents on these special occasions. The key take-away from our wonderful discussion with Grainne was that with a little advance planning and some simple changes, we all have the power to make each and every child feel relaxed, happy and included at events that might otherwise have been very hard for them.

If you are a parent who is planning a birthday party:

  • Try to send invitations in advance so parents can help prepare their child for the upcoming event by discussing what to expect and perhaps even visiting the venue in advance so that they can feel comfortable when it is time for the birthday party. It is helpful also to send the planned schedule of activities for the day so that neurodivergent children can anticipate what will come next and handle transitions more easily.
  • Give the option of including a place on the RSVP where parents can note any sensory differences such as flashing lights, food aversions, candles, face painting or loud/sudden noises that their child might have. In this way, a parent of a neurodivergent child can let the host know they might slip away for example when it is time to sing the happy birthday song to avoid any distress and can do so without feeling conscious.
  • Let children warm-up when they first enter the party space. Offer seats on the periphery so that children who are slow to separate from their parents can watch at first until they are comfortable enough to join in. Remove any pressure from the child to speak, make eye contact or join in and make sure parents know that it’s fine for the child to take some space and that they can join whenever you want.
  • Reducing overstimulation where possible at the party location; noise levels, flashing lights and glaring colours are all potential triggers for sensory overload. Outdoor parties can help to naturally absorb noise levels and noise canceling headphones can be a huge help to a child who struggles with noise aversion. Hosting parties at home means you can set up a quiet space in another room for any child who feels they need to take a short break somewhere calmer than the main party staging area.
  • Be aware of and accept neurodivergent forms of communication, interaction and play. Stimming can be a form of communication and is a way for some children to tell you that they are feeling happy, excited or anxious. Other children may not make eye contact when you are talking to them however, this does not mean they are not listening or paying attention. Neurodivergent play might look a bit different to typical play but it is very much an enjoyable and valid form of play that should be respected and honoured.

More than anything, we embrace neurodiversity by accepting the myriad of ways that children can enjoy having fun at a birthday party and the support they need to do so without judgment. By creating a space that allows each child to be their authentic selves and participate in a shared occasion in their own unique way is the hallmark of a neurodiversity affirming party planner.










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