“Abbie is a complete puzzle to me,” her mother, Julia Mason, confided. “Last year in first grade she had a meltdown at the class Halloween party. She wouldn’t talk to anybody. She stared at the floor. Finally she just went out and sat on the stairs and when people tried to get by her, she cried and said they were running into her on purpose.” Mrs. Mason sighed. “Her teacher said a lot of kids are scared of the masks and decorations, but Abbie kind of likes weird stuff. When her brother, Ben, dressed as a zombie, I couldn’t stand to look at him, but Abbie was laughing. So what’s going on with her? And what do I do about this Halloween?”
Without realizing it, Mrs. Mason was describing the symptoms of a recognizable problem. Kids like Abbie, who are fine most of the time but whose behavior deteriorates in busy, noisy places—parties, airports, amusement parks—often have trouble processing visual-spatial stimuli. Their minds can’t handle all the non-verbal information they’re taking in—lights, colors, sounds, movement. So they either shut down,as Abbie had at first, or they act out. Abbie felt like other kids were deliberately bothering her because her senses were being assailed by more than she could handle.
One solution, I told Mrs. Mason, was to make sure Abbie had a chance to prepare for new experiences. But dressing up for a Halloween party wasn’t mandatory. Abbie could skip the event entirely. Or Mrs. Mason and the classroom teacher could limit and structure her experience to be less overwhelming. She could do small parts of it to make the experience gradually familiar. She could be a helper who made snacks or decorated the room beforehand. She didn’t have to wear a costume or be there during the party. The idea was to let Abbie know she had choices. She could learn to recognize her own reactions and to problem solve.
“But what if she feels left out?” Mrs. Mason said.
“Then the next time, she might want to figure out what she can do to be more comfortable,” I said. “And you can help her prepare for the event. But that can be her choice.”
Once the teacher had been clued in, she gave Abbie a special assignment; preparing a ghost hand to float in the punch by filling a disposable glove with limeade, freezing it, then peeling off the glove. During the party, Abbie read a Halloween book in the library. In the chaos of costumes and games, no one noticed her absence.
Afterward, everyone talked about the ghostly hand. The teacher thanked Abbie for her work on “special effects.” Abbie described the event she hadn’t attended as, “The best party ever” —and she really meant it.
Children’s Party Basics
- Events that are purely for fun aren’t mandatory
- Don’t confuse your own excitement about an elaborate party plan with your child’s enjoyment of the event.
- Honor children’s differences. Some children have a terrible time in situations that are highly stimulating, others revel in the excitement. If you’re planning a children’s party, make sure there’s a quiet, out-of-the way place to avoid sensory overload.