One mom despaired over parties — until these strategies to soothe sensory overload made birthdays happy again for her daughter with ADHD and SPD.
by Jennifer Gay Summers
My daughter ripped the small envelope open and cried out with joy. Oh, no, I thought, a birthday party. What would it be this time? Would I chase Julianne through a park or gymnasium, trying to get her to join in? Would I have to make another apology to the birthday kid’s mom as we left? I looked at the Batman invitation and sighed with relief. It was from her best friend, Cole, and the party was at his house. What could go wrong?
At the time, Julianne was only four years old, a couple of years before her ADHD and SPD diagnosis. I blamed myself repeatedly for having an unruly child who couldn’t behave. I felt like the world’s worst mother.
When we got to Cole’s house and saw the cardboard box tunnel that led into the “Bat Cave,” located in the garage, my stomach turned over. Julianne hung onto me as we crawled on all fours through the tunnel to the end, where I dragged us up onto our feet under black and blue crepe streamers that stroked our faces like spider legs. Julianne screamed.
It was before I knew about sensory overload and how it could increase hyperactivity. Her eyes opened wide as she looked at several tables covered with glitter, glue, and markers for decorating paper bats. I moved to the back of the hot, crowded cave with the other parents. Within minutes, Julianne’s face was streaked in black and blue markers, her bat finished off with a pound of glitter, her little hands reaching for another child’s bat. “More, more!” she shouted.
I was about to jump over the tables to corral her when the song started, “Happy birthday to you...” Julianne sat across the table from Cole, and she grew very still as the dancing flames on the bat cake got closer, closer... Today, I realize that her lack of impulse control made it impossible to resist, but that day I just stood, mouth open, as Julianne shot up, leaned over, and blew out the candles on the Batman cake. I felt my cheeks burn. The birthday boy was crying, and parents stared in shock. Julianne and I left long before his presents were opened.
The years of Batman, Little Mermaid, and Teletubbies parties are over. But there were lessons I took out of that bat cave that helped us avoid the birthday party blues in the years that followed:
>> I always told Julianne what to expect before the party and we practiced, “Slow down,” “Wait your turn,” “Let your friend go first.”
>> I stood next to her when sensory distractions loomed, and made sure her chair was a safe distance from the birthday cake.
>> I asked the birthday mom if Julianne could help by throwing out the wrapping paper during present time when she couldn’t sit still. Crunching wrapping paper gives great sensory feedback!
Cole didn’t talk to Julianne for a long time after his party. Now, as teenagers, the bat cave is a dark, forgotten memory, and they remain close friends.