For the birthday boy or girl though, they are a rite of passage. Yet for many children with disabilities and special needs, birthday parties are off limits – another thing to mark them out as different.
Kate Reynolds, a 49- year-old mother of two from Wiltshire was saddened to realise that her youngest child, Jude, now 10, was hardly ever invited to parties. She also found a tacit expectation that her son, who is autistic, and other children with disabilities and learning difficulties, would never host their own parties either.
She feels so strongly that Jude and others like him deserve a birthday celebration that she has written a book about how to plan parties for children with autism, which they and their guests can all enjoy.
"I knew Jude was left out of parties because it was obviously harder work for people to have him. He used to occasionally tag along with his sister Francesca, 12, but I felt sad about that. He was eight before he was invited to a party in his own right. That was a huge deal. I felt he was regarded as an individual," says Kate, a former nurse and counsellor.
"A birthday party can give a child a real sense of himself and boost self-esteem."
Although she was desperate for Jude to enjoy the same party fun that his sister was able to, her early experiences of birthday parties with him quickly taught her that careful planning was essential.
"We went to several disastrous parties. There was one blackly comic point at which my son was trying to suck the candles on his cake while another child was rolling around on the floor trying to hide in a blanket. Then there have been the children fixated with matches, terrified of the sound of the washing machine and so on."
Kate concluded that a few changes to the typical party set-up would make an enormous difference – and hopefully persuade other parents of children with special needs that parties can not only be fun but also beneficial for their children's development.
"Social gatherings allow a child to expand their social experience and independence. That is so important to me for Jude," she says. "He observes conversation, body language and typical behaviour and he can pick up a lot in a fun way."
The starting point, says Kate, is giving the child as much preparation as possible, whether they are the subject of the party or a guest. "Of course that involves a lot of liaison between the parents and the person running the party. It is more work but the party is much more enjoyable," says Kate.
Changes in routine can be difficult for children with special needs to tolerate, so Kate recommends minimising surprises and explaining in advance about the party timetable, how games will work, the food that will be served and so on.
"When a child like Jude has an idea of what will happen and any challenges which do arise are so much easier for him to deal with," she says.
Crucially Kate also advises keeping numbers low – perhaps just four or five children- and ensuring there is a quiet space to which a child can retreat for a while if the party becomes too much for them.
The fear of a child having a major outburst – "a meltdown" as Kate and many other parents of children with autism term it – is what puts many parents off taking their children to parties or hosting them.
"I often see parents on internet forums saying they will never take their child to another party or family celebration as they fear someone getting hurt or something getting broken. It seems so limiting to take that view though when you could instead think about how to make it work."
By thinking carefully about activities which will suit the guests – whether they be simple crafts or song and dance for children with little social communication, or board games, Lego or organised sports for those with more speech and language – Kate says it is possible for children and their parents to genuinely enjoy the experience.
"Jude loves parties. It took him a while to get to grips with them but now he really enjoys them," says Kate. "At first he might like to sit and watch but now he participates more and more. I can see how happy he is because he is jumping up and down."
Another advantage to successful parties, says Kate, is that parents themselves feel less isolated and judged. "It can be very lonely being the parent of a child with complex needs. Those with children who are bussed off to a special school may rarely even meet other parents."
For Jude, who finds routine so reassuring, happy party experiences have now become part of the calendar.
"In the last couple of years he has really worked it all out – he knows where the candles are, chooses a cake he would like and thanks people for presents," says Kate. She is delighted that he is now able to enjoy a typical childhood experience.
"This year I cut up the cake and he gave a piece to everyone. That may not sound particularly impressive for a typical child but it was a brilliant achievement for Jude. I was so proud of him."
Party Planning for Children and Teens on the Autism Spectrum by Kate Reynolds (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, £12.99)
More on Parentdish: Special Needs Advice
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