Chances are if you invited me or my kid to a party, I’ve declined your invitation. It’s not that we don’t like parties, cake or good company, it’s just that parties are hard – especially holiday parties.
Almost any kind of party is sensory overload for Norrin. He’s great one on one, but put him in a room with more than two kids and he’s off in a corner by himself.
As for me? I am not the mom who can chat while glancing over at my kid. I am right beside him, the entire time. So when it’s me and Norrin at a party, it’s me and Norrin at a party.
Every year my department has holiday party. Some years I take Norrin. Some years I don’t. I’ve been at the same company for more than ten years. He’s quite familiar with my office and coworkers. But the holiday party is a different atmosphere. There are spouses and children, music and movies, cakes, candy and balloons. I love my coworkers and they are really good with Norrin. But we still have our challenges and it brings up many mixed emotions.
Kathleen O’Grady wrote a great article on how to talk to kids with autism at holiday parties. O’Grady suggested that conversations be prompted with a statement rather than a question. Questions “can be like an exam for some children with autism. If they fail the first question, the conversation is over before it starts.”
The two questions that confuse Norrin the most are: How are you and How old are you? When asked over and over again in an overwhelming situation (like a party), he shuts downs and stops talking. But if you talk to him about what he’s drawing or what he’s looking at – he’s more likely to engage in a conversation.
The Lessons I Learned After Taking My Autistic Son to Holiday Parties:
Arrive early. Most people like to arrive fashionably late for parties. Not me, I like arriving right on time when I’m with Norrin. It allows us the time to familiarize ourselves with the layout and the opportunity for Norrin to get comfortable in a new environment. Being the first one to arrive means having the party experience at his own pace without a crowd of kids. By the time other kids arrive and it becomes too much, I don’t feel too bad about leaving before the party it ends – Norrin had his fun.
Don’t be scared to ask for accommodations. My department transforms a conference room into a “Gingerbread” craft room for the kids. One year they played the Frosty the Snowman movie. Norrin is terrified of Frosty. When I tried to get him into the room, he threw himself on the floor. I didn’t want to ask them to turn off the movie for Norrin’s sake so I had to run into the room, grab a gingerbread man and run back out. Later, when my coworkers asked if Norrin enjoyed the craft room, I explained that he didn’t go in because he was scared. Everyone I told this to, said I should have asked for the movie to be turned off while Norrin was in the room. Next year, if Norrin is still scared, I’ll ask.
Be prepared. Take an extra change of clothes and underwear, just in case. Sometimes when kids are excited or over stimulated, they rush through things. I’ll leave it that, you get the point.
Find a quiet area. Parties can be overwhelming for almost everyone. Find a quiet space to rest for a few moments. When things got to be too much, we look for a corner where Norrin can sit and play on his iPad for a few minutes before returning to the party.
Put things in perspective. Parties are tough for several reasons. And being around “typical” kids, is one of them – at least for me. Norrin is an only child, autism is all I know. Most days it’s easy to forget. But when I’m around typical kids, I’m reminded of how different Norrin is. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t hurt – seeing kids form friendships with ease, running around a party.
Norrin may not run around with the other kids, but he’s gentle with the little ones and able to share. He will sit still long enough to have his face painted (something he refused to do a few years ago). And my coworkers always talk about how well behaved Norrin is, how big he’s gotten, how much he was talking. They recogniz the progress he’s made. And I recognized it too.
Keep trying. Parties are hard for us. But it’ll never get easier if we constantly decline invitations. Like everything else in our lives – parties take practice.