If your young child has ever quickly covered their ears, and possibly even started to cry at the sounds of loud flushes and hand dryers of a public restroom, you’ve witnessed a sensory sensitivity. While it’s pretty normal for kids to become overwhelmed by loud noises, children with sensory processing disorder (which is fairly common but can be difficult to detect) will have similar, or even more intense, responses to everything from light to the texture of certain fabrics to spicy foods. Since a lot of party scenarios can be overwhelming, it’s a good idea to have a few sensory-friendly party activities in your plans if you’re hosting an event.
You may have heard of sensory processing disorder at some point, 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 different degrees of sensory sensitivity. It is an extremely common symptom of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and is also often associated with attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and developmental delays. That being said, there are also plenty of people without diagnoses that still experience sensory sensitivity to some degree.
It doesn’t matter how old you are, if you have sensory sensitivity, it can be incredibly difficult. Unlike adults, kids don’t always know how to avoid things they’re sensitive to, and when it takes them by surprise they may scream, cry, and become inconsolable. By doing what you can to throw a sensory-friendly kids party, you’re doing what you can to ensure kids with sensory sensitivities feel safe and have fun.
Planning a sensory-friendly party
When you’re party planning, the first thing to understand is that the party’s environment is a major determining factor in whether or not it’s sensory-friendly. “Planning a sensory-friendly party is one of those situations where less tends to be more,” Sarah Norris, MS, OTR/L, an occupational therapist and founder of The Sensory Coach, Inc., tells Romper in an email, “keep it as simple as possible, that helps keep things from getting overwhelming for all involved.” Similarly, Tiffanie Moore, Associate Vice President of Clinical Services at BlueSprig, suggests holding the party in a venue or space with limited capacity and consider making environmental modifications to prevent kids from feeling overwhelmed, such as dimming the lights and keeping the volume low 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 feels comfortable with to help at the party. “Someone familiar with neurodiversity can help set up activities and assist with meltdowns if necessary,” she explains. She also recommends consulting with your child’s therapy team to come up with a plan that will work best for your unique child.
If your child doesn’t have any sensory sensitivities, and you don’t know for sure if any of the guests do, make a note on the invitation that asks parents to contact you if their child has any sensory needs so that you can make accommodations as needed (this is also a good way to ask about food allergies).
While there is no fool-proof way to plan out a perfect party that’s designed for everyone, there are still some 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 looks like, and preparing kids for transitions throughout the event. Providing information ahead of the party and including a mini schedule of activities in the invitation lets kids know what to expect, suggests Martin. At the party, Moore recommends creating a visual schedule of some sort (you can use pictures for kids who can’t read) and making sure to also verbalize transitions. “Announcing the end of an activity with advance notice helps,” says Moore “for example, ‘in 10 minutes we will finish arts and crafts and move to cupcakes.’”
- Avoid flashing lights and unexpected loud noises. This can include loud party favors, venues with blaring music or dramatic lighting or even overdoing it on decorations.
- Ask for help. As mentioned above, if the party is for your child, then getting some help from their therapist can really help you plan an individualized sensory-friendly party. If the sensory-sensitive child is a guest, then seek out advice from friends or family who have experience in this area, or their parents. (Chances are they won’t be offended or bothered by this, they’ll be grateful).
- Let kids warm up. “Offer some seating on the periphery,” suggests Norris, “so that kids that might be a little slow to separate from a parent or warm up to a new situation can sit and watch for a minute before finding an activity or friend that engages them.”
- Make room for movement. Both Norris and Martin say it’s good to keep kids moving throughout the party, and you can do this by creating stations for guests to jump to/from throughout the party, which also offers kids the ability to opt-out of any activity that seems overwhelming to them.
- Be mindful about the birthday song. A big group of people singing loudly (and, let’s be honest, off-key) can be overstimulating for anyone, especially someone with sensory sensitivities. Martin suggests making it optional for guests and offering kids who opt out an alternative way to wish their friend a happy birthday. Similarly, Norris recommends singing the song outside so that it doesn’t sound quite as loud.
- Serve sensory-friendly foods. Martin says, “When picking party foods, have a variety of finger food options.” The best foods will be small and bite-size, and she suggests using “fruit or toothpicks when possible.”
- Skip the balloons. Balloons squeak and have the potential to pop loudly, and all of the experts recommend avoiding them (or at least minimizing the number you put out) if at all possible. “Kids who are more sensitive to sensory input can be fearful of the balloon popping, which can, in turn, make them appear less interested in an activity that involves and/or is close to balloons,” says Martin.”
- Plan for meltdowns. “Meltdowns are typical for neurotypical and neurodiverse kids alike,” Moore says, “For kids with autism, a meltdown is typically a result of being over-stimulated.” To help minimize the risk for 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 go to calm down if needed.
- Set up a quiet space. In addition to it being helpful in calming meltdowns, a quiet space is also just nice for kids to have in general, according to Martin. “Make it low key, friendly, and inviting,” she says, “let all the kids know that if they need a break from the excitement (no matter when during the party) they can head into the chill out room to relax on a pillow to look at a book or work on a quiet craft.”
Sensory-friendly party activities
Keeping little guests entertained at parties is no small task, but there are plenty of fun sensory-friendly party activities for kids that everyone can enjoy. Here are some ideas shared by Moore, Norris, and Cynthia Martin, PysD, Clinical Psychologist and Senior Director of our Autism Center at the Child Mind Institute.
- Sensory-friendly slime, which Moore says, “is not only an enjoyable activity but helps children develop their fine-motor skills [and] it can also be a relaxing activity for kids, especially those with autism.”
- Water play (water table or splash pad) is something Martin says is fun, and easy to keep on theme.
- Physical games in a large space, like jumping rope or an obstacle course, as Norris says. Space for running, jumping, climbing, or swinging is helpful for kids with sensory sensitivities.
- Bounce houses and trampolines are also good physical activities, “but keep the number of kids inside each at a small and limited number,” says Martin. And set timers for firm start/stop times.
- Play-Doh, Moore says, is “a creative and relaxing mode of play.”
- Sensory-themed bins “activate the senses” and “provide a claiming activity and present opportunities for learning and exploring,” according to Moore.
- Movies “without dramatic elements, with individual and creative seating for each child,” suggests Martin, “like a set of boxes made into cars for each child to sit in as a ‘drive in’ movie, or towels to pretend they’re at the beach.” She further explains, “the novelty and physical outline will provide children who are more sensory seeking with their own space and help them to engage in watching the movie or clips without encroaching on their peers' space.” She also recommends including a fidget item of some sort in each space.
- A craft table in a quiet space, recommends Norris. Have a planned craft for all of the kids to do or simply set up an area with everything a kid needs for drawing, coloring, painting, or sculpting.
- Paint walls, says Martin. “Put up a big sheet and have a hand/finger painting activity; this is a huge mess so pick a good space (e.g., garage) and let kids run their hands in paint to fill in a themed outline with handprints and splatters.”
- Ring toss is a good group activity, according to Norris, because it “encourages participation but doesn’t require it” and it isn’t highly competitive.
- Scavenger hunt, as long as it’s collaborative and not competitive, says Martin, “Have a clear order of who is going to read a clue and when [and] identify who will answer the clue and give them the option to ask friends for help if they don't know the answer.”
One thing Martin says is important to keep in mind when planning a party, especially one that is sensory-friendly — is that there is no one-size-fits-all approach here. Every child is different and their individual needs are unique, so definitely consider reaching out to parents before the party to find out what might be enjoyable for their child.
Tiffanie Moore, Associate Vice President of Clinical Services at BlueSprig
Cynthia Martin, PysD, Clinical Psychologist and Senior Director of our Autism Center at the Child Mind Institute
Sarah Norris, MS, OTR/L, Occupational Therapist and Founder of The Sensory Coach, Inc.