If your young child has ever quickly covered their ears and possibly even started crying at the sound of loud flushing and hand dryers in a public restroom, you have experienced a sensory sensitivity. While it’s fairly normal for children to be overwhelmed by loud noises, children with a sensory processing disorder (which is fairly common but can be difficult to detect) react similarly or even more intensely to everything from light to the texture of certain substances to spicy foods . Since many party scenarios can be overwhelming, it’s a good idea to include some sensory-friendly party activities in your plans when hosting an event.
You may have heard of sensory processing disorder before, and while this isn’t an officially recognized disorder according to the Child Mind Institute, it’s become a widely known term because so many children (and adults) experience varying degrees of sensory sensitivity. It is an extremely common symptom of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and is also often associated with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and developmental delays. However, there are also many people without a diagnosis who still have some degree of sensory sensitivity.
It doesn’t matter how old you are, if you have sensory sensitivity it can be incredibly difficult. Unlike adults, children do not always know how to react sensitively, and when surprised they can scream, cry and become heartbroken. By doing what you can to throw a sensory-friendly kids’ party, you’re doing what you can to make sure children with sensory sensitivities feel safe and have fun.
Planning a sensory-friendly party
When planning a party, the first thing you need to understand is that the party’s environment is a major factor in whether it’s sensory or not. “Planning a sensory-friendly party is one of those situations where less tends to be more,” says Sarah Norris, MS, OTR/L, occupational therapist and founder of The Sensory Coach, Inc., in an email to Romper It’s That Easy as possible so that it doesn’t get overwhelming for everyone involved.” Similarly, Tiffanie Moore, Associate Vice President of Clinical Services at BlueSprig, suggests holding the party at a venue or venue with limited capacity and considering Make environmental changes to prevent children from feeling overwhelmed, e.g. B. dim the lights and keep the volume down for music or other media.
If you’re trying to plan a sensory-friendly party for your own child, Moore suggests recruiting friends and family that your child is comfortable with to help with the party. “Someone who is knowledgeable about neurodiversity can help set up activities and help with meltdowns if needed,” she explains. She also recommends consulting with your child’s therapy team to develop a plan that works best for your unique child.
If your child doesn’t have sensory sensitivities and you’re not sure if any of the guests have any, make a note on the invitation asking the parents to contact you if their child has any sensory needs so you can do this Accommodations as needed (this is also a good way to ask about food allergies).
While there’s no foolproof way to plan the perfect party that’s for everyone, there are still a few things you can do to make it as successful as possible:
- Set expectations for transitions. “Create an atmosphere of choice and reduce or eliminate surprises as much as possible,” says Norris. You can do this by letting guests (and parents) know what the schedule of events is like and preparing kids for transitions throughout the event. By providing information before the party and including a mini-program of activities in the invite, the kids will know what to expect, Martin suggests. At the party, Moore recommends creating some sort of visual schedule (you can use pictures for kids who can’t read) and making sure to verbalize transitions as well. “It helps to give advance notice of the end of an activity,” says Moore, “for example, ‘In 10 minutes we’re going to finish arts and crafts and move on to cupcakes.'”
- Avoid flashing lights and unexpected loud noises. This can include loud party favors, venues with blaring music or dramatic lighting, or even over-the-top decorations.
- Ask for help. As mentioned above, if the party is for your child, then getting help from their therapist to plan a customized sensory-friendly party can really help. If the sensory sensitive child is visiting, seek advice from friends or relatives who have experience in this area, or from their parents. (Chances are they won’t be offended or bothered by this, they’ll be grateful).
- let the children warm up. “Provide some peripheral seating,” Norris suggests, “so kids who may be a little slow to separate from a parent or warm up to a new situation can sit and watch for a minute before starting an activity or activity.” Find a boyfriend to keep her busy.”
- Make room for movement. Both Norris and Martin say it’s good to keep kids moving throughout the party, and you can do that by creating stations that guests can hop to throughout the party, which gives kids the opportunity too to refuse any activity that seems overwhelming to them.
- Remember the birthday song. A large group of people singing out loud (and, let’s face it, singing off-key) can be overstimulating for anyone, especially someone with sensory sensitivities. Martin suggests making it optional for guests and offering children who choose not to, an alternative way to wish their friend a happy birthday. Likewise, Norris recommends singing the song outside so it doesn’t sound quite so loud.
- Serve sensory friendly food. Martin says, “When you’re selecting party food, you have a variety of finger food options.” The best foods are small and bite-sized, and she suggests using “fruit or toothpicks” whenever possible.
- Skip the balloons. Balloons squeak and can pop loudly, and all experts recommend avoiding them whenever possible (or at least minimizing the number you pop). “Children who are more sensitive to sensory input may fear balloon bursting, which in turn may make them seem less interested in an activity that involves and/or is close to balloons,” Martin says.
- Plan for meltdowns. “Meltdowns are common in neurotypical and neurodiverse children alike,” says Moore. “In children with autism, a meltdown is typically the result of overstimulation.” To minimize the risk of meltdowns, she recommends removing potential triggers (if you know what they are) and setting up a quiet space, with things like sensory toys or a weighted blanket, where a child can calm down when needed.
- Set up a quiet room. Aside from being helpful in calming meltdowns, Martin says a quiet place is just nice for kids in general too. “Make it low-key, friendly, and welcoming,” she says, “let all the kids know that if they need a break from the excitement (anytime during the party) they can go to the quiet room to relax on a to relax on pillows to look at a book or work on a quiet craft.”
Sensory friendly party activities
Keeping little guests entertained at parties is no easy task, but there are many fun, sensory-friendly party activities for kids that everyone can enjoy. Here are some ideas from Moore, Norris, and Cynthia Martin, PysD, Clinical Psychologist and Executive Director of our Autism Center at Child Mind Institute.
- Sensor friendly slimewhich Moore says, “is not only a fun activity but helps kids develop their fine motor skills [and] It can also be a relaxing activity for children, especially those with autism.”
- water feature (water table or splash pad) is fun and easy to stick with, according to Martin.
- Physical games in a large room, like jumping rope or an obstacle course, as Norris says. Space to run, jump, climb, or swing is helpful for children with sensory sensitivities.
- bouncy castles and trampolines are also good physical activities, “but keep the number of children in each small and limited,” says Martin. And set timers for fixed start/stop times.
- play-dohsays Moore, is “a creative and relaxing way to play.”
- Containers with sensory themes “Activate the senses” and “Provide a challenging activity and provide opportunities for learning and exploration,” according to Moore.
- movies “Without dramatic elements, with individual and creative seating for each child,” Martin suggests, “like a series of boxes made into cars for each child to sit in as a drive-in, or towels to pretend to be they would be in the car beach.” She continues, “The novelty and physical outline will provide more sensory-seeking children with their own space and help them engage with the film or clips without intruding on their peers’ space intervene.” She also recommends incorporating some sort of fidget element into each room.
- A craft table in a quiet room, Norris recommends. Have a planned craft for all the kids, or just set up an area with everything a kid needs to draw, color, paint, or sculpt.
- paint walls‘ says Martin. “Hang up a large sheet of paper and do a hand/finger painting activity; It’s a huge mess, so pick an appropriate spot (e.g. a garage) and have the kids paint their hands to fill a themed outline with handprints and splatters.”
- ring toss is a good group activity because it “encourages but doesn’t require participation” and is not very competitive, according to Norris.
- scavenger huntas long as it’s cooperative and non-competitive, Martin says, “you have a clear order of who’s going to read a clue and when [and] Identify who will answer the clue and give them the opportunity to ask friends for help if they don’t know the answer.”
One thing to keep in mind when planning a party, especially a sensory one, Martin says, is that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach. Every child is different and their individual needs are unique, so definitely consider reaching out to the parents before the party to find out what their child might enjoy.
Tiffanie Moore, Associate Vice President of Clinical Services at BlueSprig
Cynthia Martin, PysD, Clinical Psychologist and Executive Director of our Autism Center at Child Mind Institute
Sarah Norris, MS, OTR/L, Occupational Therapist and Founder of The Sensory Coach, Inc.