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Designing a Sensory-Friendly Party Environment

Chances are, some of your favorite childhood memories are of birthday parties. You couldn’t wait for the cake, the presents, the games with your friends. Unfortunately, though, for many children, the raucousness of a kid’s birthday party is far more of a terror than a treat.

The good news, though, is that it is possible to throw a sensory-friendly party for a child that cuts out the anxiety without eliminating the fun.

confetti party
confetti party

Why It Matters

You may have loved all the vibrant colors, the incessant noise, and the wild comingling of smells and tastes that characterized birthday celebrations when you were growing up.

However, for children who have sensory processing challenges, such as those who are on the autism spectrum, the old standards for a kid’s party can quickly become overwhelming, instigating a spiral from anxiety to distress to meltdown.

Fortunately, your child does not have to face the choice between experiencing the trauma of a cacophonous party or avoiding it, and losing time with their friends. The key is to plan carefully, with your child’s particular needs in mind.

Choose Your Guestlist Wisely

One of the first and most important keys to creating a sensory-friendly party is to establish the right conditions for a calm and comfortable experience for your child. This means ensuring that you keep the guest list small to help prevent your child from becoming overstimulated.

It’s also important to invite only those with whom your child is familiar and related. A few close friends will be far more low-key than a roomful of noisy classmates.

Selecting a Theme

Birthday party
Birthday party

The party’s theme should be similarly conducive to calm. Focus, of course, on your child’s interests, but nix any ideas that might result in a lot of unexpected noises or rough play.

A firefighter theme might be popular, for example, but if it’s accompanied by toys and party favors featuring sirens and flashing lights, that could quickly become a problem. So if there are special sensory considerations regarding your party theme, make sure that your guests are aware of this well ahead of time. For instance, you might include a note with your party invitations requesting that any firefighter-themed gifts be sensory-friendly.

Finding the Right Venue

Just as you don’t want to overwhelm your child with a house full of guests they don’t know well or simply aren’t comfortable with, you also don’t want to hold the party in a venue that your child doesn’t know. Instead, select a venue that your child is familiar with, one where they feel at ease.

This may mean, of course, that your best course is to host the party at home. However, this isn’t your only option. If your child has a favorite park or restaurant, you can probably book a private party suite for a nominal fee. The venue can then be outfitted with a few special touches to give it the personal, and familiarly comforting, atmosphere your child, as well as your guests, will appreciate.

Provide Opportunities to Decompress

In addition to maintaining a calm and comforting environment for your child, you will also want to ensure that you give them plenty of options and opportunities for managing their stress if it begins to build.

For example, if you notice signs that your child is becoming anxious, such as increased irritability, withdrawal, or loss of focus, then you might take them to a designated quiet room outfitted with the objects, aromas, colors, and sounds that are most soothing to them.

Similarly, you can plan sensory-friendly games and provide toys that can help your little one release pent-up anxiety. For example, some of the most popular party favors, such as spinners, can double as stress fidgets when your child needs to refocus and release their energy. Likewise, trampolines and bounce houses are a terrific option for a fun, stress-releasing physical activity that is also low-touch.

Get Creative

Party sweet
Party sweet

When it comes to a kid’s party, sensory overload can come in some pretty unexpected places. For example, “noisy” foods such as chips and crackers can be overwhelming for children with auditory processing challenges. The same is true for the traditional birthday song, especially when you have a group of excited young party goers belting it out at the top of their lungs.

That means you’re going to need to get creative. Substitute crunchy snacks for soft ones, but don’t forget to remove the wrappers ahead of time. And shake things up a bit with the birthday song. You might, for instance, hold a contest to see who can sing the softest, or you might teach the kids to sign or mime the song instead. Conversely, you might simply forgo the birthday song entirely and get right to the good stuff–the cake!

The Takeaway

Sensory processing disorders do not have to deprive your little one of one of the great joys of childhood. With a bit of strategy, it is possible to create a sensory-friendly party that your child and their friends will always remember.

Sam Bowman authored this post

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Karen LeBlanc

Karen LeBlanc is a travel host and writer with a popular travel show, The Design Tourist, and a companion lifestyle blog. As a widely published travel journalist and content creator, Karen is a member of the North American Travel Journalists Association. She also serves as the Design and Travel editor of the national lifestyle magazine, LaPalme. Karen believes that every destination has a story to tell through its local art, architecture, culture, and craft. This immersive creative exploration begins with authentic accommodations where the narrative of place unfolds through art, accessories, accouterments, furnishings, fixtures, and food.