Birthdays for Children with Autism

Birthdays are such a special part of a family’s life, it’s a special occasion, a milestone marker of your child’s life that parents would want to celebrate every year.


However, when it comes to children on the spectrum, this can be quite a challenging scenario. They may display challenging behaviours, as they might not really know what is happening, and there may also be increased expectations of them that we adults may not realise.


Some examples of the possible challenges in a birthday party:

  • Visual overload from decorations
  • Loud party music
  • Food-challenge for child with food tolerance/impulse control issues
  • Loud sounds and crowds

*Remember to see things from our children’s perspective, only then will we be able to break it down and make it successful!

Recap: The 3 Key ABA Strategies

  • Break skills down
  • Pair with Reinforcement
  • Provide Sufficient Practice


Big grand birthdays may not be for every child on the spectrum, and birthdays need to celebrate your child with autism in the way they enjoy.


Is this a Preventative, Teaching or Reactive Strategy?

Building a child’s tolerance to birthdays is a Teaching Strategy.


1. Communicate expectations: while communicating the expectations for the birthday, gradually expose your child to the idea of birthdays.


a. Social Story and a simple Video Model

b. Little books on birthdays

c. Short cartoons of a birthday celebration

  • Importantly, while doing this, assess and gauge if there is a specific challenge that your child is facing when it comes to a birthday (e.g. birthday song moment, crowd).



2. Practice: starting the birthday song and blowing the candle


a. Backward chaining method: sing just the last line of the birthday song. Child is only expected to sing one line of the song, and learn the expected behaviour to sit in front of the cake and then to blow the candle out.

b. Gradually build up the expectations-gradually increase to the full song, gradually start to bring more and more people in, with initially just one person singing softly, then a few more people sing softly, increasing the volume of the group gradually, and so on.

c. Once the birthday cake portion is complete, gradually add more and more to the birthday party schedule, example:


  • “Party is ready” (wow decorations, yummy food, cake!)
  • “Hello friends” – break this routine down and teach expectations (e.g. say hello, accept gifts and place them on the table etc.)
  • “Quieter trickle” – in activity stations-art and crafts, games (simple ones that your child is successful in)
  • “Food”
  • “Cake”
  • “Photo”
  • “Goodbye”
  • “Presents”

* Don’t forget to have a few “Free Play” and “Change” visuals as well, in case your child needs a break, or to communicate inevitable changes!



This is a basic rough schedule, and your family may want to do it totally differently. What is most important, is that you apply a proactive approach to setting your child up to be successful.


These steps may not be relevant to children who don’t struggle with any of these areas, so apply this accordingly to your child’s needs, and what works for your family!

Your Turn

1. Firstly, try to identify what the core challenges are when it comes to birthdays for your child. Here are some possibilities summarised below again:


  • Birthday cake & song component, or even the candle?
  • The crowd of people?
  • Intolerance of children coming into the home and playing with their toys
  • Waiting to open the gifts?
  • Wanting to win all the games?
  • Or any other reasons



2. Next, try to identify what type of birthday would be most successful for your child, here are some tips for you to help craft a successful birthday:


  • Where would be the most successful location?
  • How many guests would your child be successful with?
  • How long a duration do you think would be most successful?
  • What are the different elements of the party that your child would enjoy – e.g. arts & crafts, games etc.