Birthday party invitations are few and far between when you have child with disabilities. My daughter who is part of the SPED program at school has been invited to two birthday parties in the last 8 years. My son who is able-bodied and has a group of buddies he hangs with will get invited to birthday parties throughout the year.
Before we moved out of state from our hometown, it didn’t matter if the party invites came in for her because we had big birthday parties with grandparents, family and cousins. Living in Arizona, we don’t have that network so her parties became dinners with cake and a couple of my son’s friends.I wanted this year to be different. I started thinking about sensory-friendly birthday parties. I planned to invite her class so they could play together outside of school. It’d also be a great way for parents to get together.
I came across a local, mobile petting zoo that was reasonably priced. Goats, pigs, alpacas, chickens and ducks would round out the animal guests. A friend of ours offered their large backyard for the event. My sister and brother-in-law came into town to help. We had about 15 kids, 20 parents, 25 animals and a pony. I added pony rides because I couldn’t help myself!
Here’s what I learned planning a birthday party for our special needs kids:
Create a party theme everyone can enjoy
I thought of all the kiddos in her class when I was searching for a party theme that would suite everyone. The school had a 4-H field trip last year and the kids were able to pet the animals. My husband and I also chaperoned a zoo field trip last year. The kids loved the animals and animals are so healing. Our daughter also loves to ride horses and attends hippotherapy each week. I stumbled across the mobile petting zoo on Instagram. It was a perfect match!
Keep it short and sweet
We went to a birthday party last year and the mom planned it for 2-hours. Perfect! Our party was the same 2-hour time and it was the right amount for everyone. Petting zoo, play, cake, presents and done in 2 hours. No meltdowns and no sensory overloads.
Give parents different ways to RSVP
I handed out paper invites because I didn’t have an email list for the class. Paper invites are cute, but people told me they lost them. I also think it’s more effort to RSVP from a paper invite.
In the end, I asked the teacher to email the parents and included my email and phone number. We’re all on our phones so much, I found that email or text were the best ways for people to RSVP. I had one person call me. Some won’t RSVP at all. I learned that’s just how it goes.
Find sensory-friendly party activities
You can find thousands of sensory-friendly party ideas on social media. For the animal theme, I set up bowls of different animal feed and the child felt around to find a prize hiding inside them. I hid small bubbles, bouncing balls, plastic animals and other prizes the kids feel for in the bowls.
I also made a “Feed the Pig” bean bag toss game out of our cornhole game. The kids loved it.
The petting zoo party was a hit! Everyone was happy and it was a fun time for all. We were excited that we pulled it off. I realized that a special needs party can be done. I just had to find the right set up for these kiddos.
Our daughter may not get birthday invites often, but now I know we can create something special for her and her friends. It was a day filled with laughs and great memories for everyone.