By Raising Children Network
spacer spacer PInterest spacer
spacer Print spacer Email
Children at birthday party (c)
Socialising and going to parties helps children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) develop communication and social skills. But the social world can be complicated and confusing for a child with ASD. Planning ahead and helping your child build social skills can help.    

Why parties can be hard for children with ASD

Children’s parties and social gatherings can be a great chance for children to practise and develop their social skills in a supportive environment. But children with ASD can find parties and social gatherings difficult.

Parties mean playing games, taking turns, listening to instructions – and just being with other people. All of this can be hard for kids with ASD, who often have trouble with communication and social interaction. On top of this, many party games and activities need skills that are hard for children with ASD to master, such as organising, waiting or working out what comes next.

And some children with ASD are easily overwhelmed by their surroundings. They might find it hard to cope with the noise of other children laughing and shouting or loud music.

Party games are too much for my son. We have parties in the park, so the children can all run around and have fun.
– Parent of a child with ASD

Helping your child

For a start, don’t feel that you have to take your child to a social event. Just do what feels manageable for you. But if you and your child do want to go, some planning can help you feel more confident and your child feel better prepared.

A Social Story™ about the party could be a good first step. You might focus the story on something specific such as how to take turns, or how to behave when someone else wins a game. You could also ask the party hosts what they’re planning, and use a visual schedule to show your child what’s going to happen when.

Role-plays are another good way to prepare your child for a party. For example, you and your child could role-play some of the things that will happen at the party – for example, arriving, saying hello or taking turns.

Video-modelling can also help. You can buy ready-made videos to help your child learn social skills, such as how to behave appropriately at a birthday party. Making your own videos is also an option.

Planning to go to the party only for the parts your child can manage can be a good idea. You might also plan for you and your partner, or another trusted adult, to take turns supervising your child. An ‘escape plan’ if your child feels overwhelmed might help too. For example, plan to take your child out for a walk or to sit in a quiet room.

A ‘survival kit’ with your child’s favourite toys, books or snacks might calm things down if needed.

Building skills

This is a longer-term strategy that can help your child learn how to take turns, share, join in and calm down. These skills are good for parties and other social events, but they’re also very useful in the playground, classroom or when your child is with friends.

For example, you might know that your child gets upset when he loses a game. So you could work on losing gracefully. You could build up skills in this area by:

  • using a Social Story™ to show that it’s OK to lose
  • practising losing at games of chance such as ‘snap’ or ‘snakes and ladders’
  • teaching your child to say, ‘Well done, you win’
  • using a reward of 10 minutes of a favourite activity each time your child uses his script and loses gracefully.
Our articles on learning to play fair and learning to share have ideas for helping children develop these skills.

Hosting a party: tips from parents

Planning is the key to holding a successful party for your child with ASD. Other parents have found these ideas helpful:

  • Plan for a short party with a clear structure.
  • Give the party a theme based on your child’s special interests.
  • Hold the party in a familiar and contained environment such as your house or your local play centre.
  • Keep unstructured playtime to a minimum.
  • Always have an adult near your child who can help her out if she gets confused or upset.
  • Make sure all the adults know their roles.

Video Parties and social situations

‘It’s all in the preparation’, says one of the mums in this short video about helping children with autism cope in social situations like children’s parties, weddings and family gatherings.

The parents in this video all say that planning ahead and letting their children know what to expect is a big help. Their strategies also include social stories and social skills classes.

  • Last updated or reviewed 01-06-2016
  • Acknowledgements This article was developed in collaboration with Martyn Matthews, Autism Spectrum Disorder Service Leader, IDEA Specialist Services.