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by Joanna Dreifus

Related: kids with special needs, planning a party for a child with special needs, tips for parents with special needs kids,

When your child has special needs, planning a birthday party takes a lot of extra planning and special considerations from the parents. Joanna Dreifus, a New York City parent and mom of two children who each have special needs, shares her top tips for helping parents enjoy their special needs kid's birthday parties, even when it's hard. These tips will help make your child with special needs birthday easier for you and ultimately happier for them, too.

girl with birthday cake

When your child has special needs, planning a birthday party takes a lot of extra planning and special considerations from the parents. Joanna Dreifus, a New York City parent and mom of two children who each have special needs, shares her top tips for helping parents enjoy their special needs kid's birthday parties, even when it's hard. These tips will help make your child with special needs birthday easier for you and ultimately happier for them, too.

During the consultations I have with special needs parents, I advise them on many topics including evaluations, diagnoses, therapies, and schools. But sometimes the most memorable discussions are poignant ones about milestones with a child with special needs. One of those milestones is the child’s birthday.

It’s something that’s on my own mind right now, since both of my children have birthdays coming up in the next few weeks. My son (who has apraxia, SPD, and motor delays) is turning 6, and my daughter (who has social and emotional delays and anxiety) is turning 9.

Our children’s birthdays are meant to be a time to celebrate their accomplishments, their growing up, their marking another “lap” completed in their path of growing up. And to look forward to what’s to come in the next year.

But as I’ve heard from many parents—and as I know personally—sometimes the birthday of your special needs child brings up uncomfortable feelings such as:

My child is not where I thought he/she would be developmentally at this age.

It is hard to see other kids at this age accomplishing so much/doing so well, while my child lags behind or suffers.

My child cannot enjoy his/her own celebration due to anxiety, sensory issues, obsessive thoughts, impulsivity, or other issues.

My child’s birthday just reminds me how “different” this childhood is from what I expected my child to go through—and I worry the upcoming year will be more of the same.

If you’ve ever thought these things on your special needs child’s birthday, you are not alone.

Let me tell you about a birthday that was particularly difficult for my daughter (and thus, for me, too). The year she turned 5, she was at a low point, suffering from anxiety, irritability, and social delays, among other issues. She didn’t want a birthday party at first (and I thought, “What 5-year-old doesn’t want a birthday party?”). She insisted on a purple-and-black knight theme, which I gave her, even though I would have preferred pink princesses. Sadly, she also insisted that no one sing “Happy Birthday” (or even say “Happy Birthday”) to her. I had to put up a sign on our front door warning our guests NOT to wish the birthday girl a “Happy Birthday.” When they asked why, I just said, “I’ll explain later,” even though it really would have taken me hours to explain.

I can’t even remember many particulars of how the party went. I think I blocked it out. But I know that she melted down many times, and that my eyes welled with tears just as often. I felt so badly for her…and, I’ll admit, for me, too. Was this what my child’s birthday was supposed to be like? I thought about the other baby girls in the newborn nursery when she was born 5 years earlier: Did they suffer like she did? Jealously, I felt that those girls and their parents must be having a wonderful day, while ours was pretty crummy.

That night, I cried some more and called some close friends (other special needs parents who got it). We talked and talked and I got some good advice about what might make future birthdays a bit easier for everyone involved. Over the years, I’ve added some of my own tips. I hope that you find them helpful, too:

Know your child’s limits. Does your child get overwhelmed by crowds or big parties? Keep the party, if you have one, small. Do you know that old adage that you should invite the same number of kids as the age of the birthday party? Abide by that—or think even smaller. My son is turning 6 and we may have only four kids at his party. Keep the celebration short, too. An hour is plenty. Three-hour parties can be invitations for meltdowns.

Redefine ‘party.’ By the way, your child’s birthday party doesn’t need to be an actual party. It can be sitting at the kitchen table with some balloons, snacks, and a few friends or relatives. It can be a special outing to your child’s favorite park or playground. Whatever your child wants to do most and makes him/her happiest is your best bet—and if that’s not a party, that’s okay.

Indulge your child’s special interests. Sure, you may want your child to have a themed birthday like other kids have (Disney princesses, anyone?). But think about what your child likes best. It is his or her day to celebrate. If she wants a knight-themed party (ahem), or wants books about tornadoes as birthday gifts (this is what my daughter has requested for her 9th birthday), indulge them. Do what you can to make your child happy on her special day.

Keep your own expectations low. Try to remember that it may be a tough day for you. Maybe plan a special treat for yourself. Ask friends for support if you need to. Don’t fret if the birthday plans—whether a party, a special meal, or gift opening—doesn’t go according to plan. This is one day you should definitely go with the flow and not fight what happens. Let your child take the lead.

Write your child a birthday letter. This is a very special tradition to me. Every year I write my child a letter about what he or she was like during the past year. It’s a time to jot down the funny things they said or did, the outings we enjoyed together the most, or even just their favorite foods or toys. Keep it positive; it will be a good reminder for you about all the fun moments you had this year—and it’ll be a treasured keepsake for your child years later.

Put your ‘special needs blinders’ on. By this, I mean don’t compare your kid to other kids. My son cannot play sports or ride a bike like other 6-year-old boys can. My daughter cannot read social cues like other 9-year-old girls can. On their birthdays, though, I refuse to think about these things. I will celebrate the progress they have made personally this year, not think about the areas where they still lag.

Give yourself a pat on the back. Parenting any child is a tough job. Raising children with special needs can be exponentially harder. Your accomplishment of acing another year as a special needs parent (even if you’ve had some tough moments…and we’ve all had plenty of them) is something to celebrate too. And so is your child’s progress during that year—because it is, in very large part, thanks to your support and love. Be proud of yourself.

Joanna Dreifus, a graduate of Harvard University and Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, is founder of Special Kids NYC. She has worked at The New York Community Trust administering grants to programs for people with special needs and currently serves on the Board of YAI in New York City. Joanna is the proud mother of two children (ages 5 and 8) who each have special needs. This post was originally published at Special Kids NYC.

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