4 Tips for Managing Parties and Social Gatherings this Summer
Here comes the summer! It’s time for barbecues, outdoor festivals, street parties, family get-togethers and camping out…or, if you’re the parent of an autistic child, you may be thinking it’s time for sensory blowouts, extreme behaviors and emotional outbursts. The summer is a great time for social gatherings but, with changes to routines and full of surprises, these can be the most challenging events for autistic children and teens.
There are ways to help our youngsters manage parties and social gatherings better – and even develop some social skills along the way. So, here are some tips about how to prepare for, and manage, parties and other social gatherings:
1. Routine and Predictability:
Whatever age the children are, use invitations as a visual aide, so that parents can run through what will happen with younger kids and teens can read through and prepare for the party.
Have a timetable of when activities or games will be played, if possible with some timings or order. It’s particularly helpful for kids and parents to know when food will be served – nothing promotes an emotional outburst like an empty belly.
If you’ve got unusual equipment, take a photo and include that as part of the invitation. Perhaps you’re doing a swimming party with an inflatable as the main focus – why not make the image of the inflatable the cover of your invitation?
A copy of the schedule of the party can be placed on the wall to remind autistic kids what to expect if they forget in the emotion and anxiety of a social gathering.
2. Sensory issues:
These may affect any of the five senses, all of which may be assaulted at parties and other social gatherings. The most likely causes of sensory blowouts are surprises, such as balloons popping or other kids screaming. Some kids may find groups difficult, so this may be managed by ensuring the numbers of guests is in the invitation. Others may be extremely visual, meaning that ‘tricks’ by magicians may be believed absolutely and can leave some kids disturbed and running for the exit.
Younger and older autistic kids may find eye contact difficult and socializing a mystery. Sometimes giving them a specific task to do can ease them into a social gathering. For example, getting an autistic kid to do the photography for an outdoor event keeps them focused and ‘in’ the party but without too many social expectations. They can engage to a limited extent by asking people to look at the camera and say ‘cheers’. Don’t pressure them with high expectations of the photos and you may get some unexpectedly good shots!
3. Emotional outbursts and meltdowns:
Provide a quiet area in case a meltdown happens. The aim is to return kids to any party situation, which they may manage better once they are calmer. Quiet areas have been criticized as marginalizing special needs kids by removing them from social situations, but I believe they can be used as a temporary retreat while a specific activity is happening or during an emotional outburst. It’s better not to have any form of screen in the quiet room, because you may end up struggling to return the child to the party.
Parties and social gatherings with autistic teens often are complicated by the addition of hormones, which open the door to fights and sexual behaviours. If alcohol is added to the mix, you may be extremely grateful to have a quiet room already put aside to enable autistic guests some calming time.
4. 1:1 support
Inviting autistic kids to a party is great, but for them to be fully included may involve extra pairs of hands. Having a 1:1 for autistic kids really helps things along by ensuring that kids don’t run or wander away and that any potential emotional outbursts are noticed early. Although many parents are used to staying throughout social events, many hands make things far easier and more pleasurable. How about asking a local high school if any students would like to volunteer to help out without responsibility for a child? This could be mutually beneficial if you provide a short awareness-raising event about autism and they get experience – you can always provide a work reference – and free food!
For autistic teens, why not try buddying them up with someone who doesn’t have autism? This can work by giving non-spectrum kids a learning experience when they can model socially appropriate behavior for an autistic peer – but choose your ‘model ler’ carefully!
Parties and social gatherings of all sorts can be great learning opportunities for autistic kids. They can observe social behaviors, hear social greetings and gain other social insights that will help them manage such occasions in future with less anxiety. If you want to learn more why not take a look at ‘Party Planning for Children and Teens on the Autism Spectrum’ (2012, Jessica Kingsley Publishers)? It gives lots of ideas and tips for managing parties. You may even stop dreading parties and start to look forward to them!
Kate E. Reynolds BSc (Hons) RGN, PGDipHEd, PGDipCouns. Kate worked for the UK’s socialized health care system for 18 years before having her two children. In 2005 her son was diagnosed as having autism disorder with severe speech delay. Since then Kate has written numerous articles and several books for Jessica Kingsley Publishers. She has returned to the University of Bristol, UK, to study a Masters degree in Disability Studies. She blogs at autismagonyaunt.com
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As seen in our July/Aug 2014 issue