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9 tips for making your holiday party neurodiversity-affirming and autism-friendly

9 tips for making your holiday party neurodiversity-friendly

Updated: August 11, 2023 · 9 Minute Read

Amy Gong

Reviewed by:

Amy Gong, Neurodiversity Advocate


  • If you’re the parent of an autistic child, communicate their triggers and needs with your host, so that accommodations can be made if necessary. You might bring your kid’s favorite toys or work with the host to create a sensory-friendly room at the party.
  • If you’re autistic, let your host know what will make you feel most comfortable. You might ask that they have a quiet space for you to take a break in. You might bring a dish or snacks in case you need more safe options.
  • If you’re hosting, set a comfortable dress code and share any activities and meals you have planned. Be flexible to changes in case guests end up coming late or not able to make the party.

If you’re attending or hosting a neurodiverse gathering this holiday season, here are 9 tips for making your event accessible and enjoyable for all.


1. Designate at least one quiet space

If you’re hosting, reserve at least one room for no talking and no noise. This can serve as a decompression and regulation space for everyone, but especially autistic guests. Add a sign outside with clear rules and expectations. Folks will likely appreciate having somewhere to escape to when the festivities become a bit too much. 


You can include calming and relaxing items in the quiet space. This could be puzzles, a weighted blanket, and fidget toys. Have a movie playing if there’s a tv. 


If you’re neurodivergent or a parent, ask your host where you can retreat to when things become overwhelming. You might bring noise-canceling headphones, a game or book.


2. Communicate your expectations and plans

All guests will appreciate being included in planning your event. Check with guests regarding things like menu or restaurant selection, duration, what activities to do, and expectations. Get their input and adjust plans as necessary to accommodate needs. 


Give guests a clear plan of what to expect from the event so they know how to best prepare. This is especially important for autistic children and adults. Knowing what the plan is for the day (e.g., what we’ll be eating, when we’ll be eating, what we’ll be doing and for how long) can reduce unnecessary stress for neurodivergent guests.


If you’re the parent of an autistic or neurodivergent child, communicate your child’s triggers and needs with your host, so they can prepare accommodations if necessary. Here is our full guide to neurodiversity-friendly gatherings for parents.


If you’re an autistic adult, let your host know what will make you feel most comfortable. You might ask that the music volume stay low or ask for the schedule beforehand. If you are asked to bring something, ask for specific instructions.


If you’re a host, check in with neurodivergent guests to ask “How can I help you feel more comfortable?” If you asked guests to bring something, make your request very clear. For example, instead of saying “Just bring chips,” you can say, “Bring 3 bags of Lays, 2 bags of Doritos, and 1 bag of pretzels.” Knowing exactly what is needed and how much of it to bring prevents your guests from developing anxiety about getting it wrong. Here’s our full guide to hosting a neurodiversity-friendly gathering.


3. Have “safe” foods available

Many neurodivergent people have food sensitivities, food allergies, or are selective or picky eaters. 


Be sure to have at least one safe option for each of your neurodivergent loved ones. Be sure to discuss the menu beforehand to ensure everyone’s nutritional needs are met. 


If you’re hosting, ask each guest to bring a delicious dish, that way everyone has at least one thing they like. If you’re having your gathering at a restaurant, make sure there’s something on the menu that everyone will enjoy and confirm that the restaurant allows substitutions/modifications to menu items.


If you’re neurodivergent, it’s totally okay to bring your own safe food options with you or eat beforehand. Take-away containers may also be helpful if you feel uncomfortable eating with everyone else.


4. Dress code: comfort first

We know matching Christmas pajamas or dressy outfits for dinner are pretty for pictures, but many neurodivergent people (especially those with autism) have sensitivities to certain fabrics and textures. Skip the formalwear and opt for whatever makes people feel most comfortable. Everyone will feel better and enjoy themselves more if they’re dressed in a way that is authentic to them.


5. Don’t force physical contact

Nobody, including children, owe anyone physical contact. Make a rule at your gathering to respect each other’s “no”. 


Many autistic people are sensitive to physical touch, while forcing hugs and kisses (e.g. “Give Uncle Bob a hug!) teaches kids that their consent doesn’t matter. Thoughtfully explain to loved ones that body autonomy matters for many reasons, and that each person’s bodily autonomy will be respected at your family’s events, and there’s no need for guilt-tripping comments. 


If you feel your wishes are not being respected, or you are uncomfortable with something, be clear and direct about it. You can also offer an alternative you are comfortable with. For example, “I love you, Uncle Joe, but I do not want to give you a kiss. How about a handshake or fistbump instead?”


6. Keep it low key

Many neurodivergent people (especially those with autism) have sensitivities to light, sound, texture, scents, etc. 


If you’re hosting, pare down your party with fewer decorations, lower lighting, and avoid extra noise (like loud music in the background). As tempting as it is to light those gorgeous fall or winter-themed candles, avoid adding scents to the space and encourage guests to skip perfumes and colognes. Keep your gathering casual and cozy by reducing unnecessary stimulation that can cause people to be overwhelmed. (Sorry, Grandma Pearl; I guess we’ll just have one Christmas tree this year!)


7. Allow flexibility in arrivals, departures, and duration of gatherings

If you’re hosting, offer guests general arrival and departure times and let them know they’re free to come and go as they need to. This reduces the pressure to arrive at a certain time or stay for the whole thing. Parents of special needs kids are bound to be late (it’s kind of inevitable), so this reduces the strain on them, too. It’s also nice for all guests to have flexibility, especially neurodivergent ones who may need to conserve their energy, are experiencing overwhelm, or have difficulty managing time. (Raise your hand if you’re always the late person!🙋)


It’s okay to skip some events or duck out early, if necessary. Many neurodivergent people need “recovery days” after social activity, so this helps them carve out that time for rest. Parents of autistic kids will appreciate the reprieve, as many events and travel can be taxing on kids and adults. If you are feeling sick (whether it’s COVID, common cold, etc.), it’s ok to miss events and put your health first.


Take some of your gatherings virtual to space out in-person events. This is helpful for families who are spread out geographically and neurodivergent guests who prefer more intimate gatherings. Some events can be on FaceTime or Zoom to reduce strain on neurodivergent guests. Everyone may actually enjoy the more relaxed setting of virtual engagements, and hey, who wouldn’t like celebrating in their pajamas?!


8. Make the gathering a judgment-free zone

We’ve all been there – someone questions your parenting, makes a comment about how much you’ve eaten, when you’re going to get married, or why you’re on your phone so much. Negative or judgy comments create pressure for people (neurotypical and neurodivergent alike) that kills the mood and makes it difficult to enjoy themselves. 


Avoid negative or judgmental comments. If someone needs to leave the table, take a break, decompress with some screen time, etc., that’s okay. They’re not being “antisocial” or rude. 


Refrain from drawing attention to what someone eats, how much, or how little. Some people may be a selective or picky eater, are uncomfortable eating around others, or living with an eating disorder. To foster a healthy and accepting atmosphere, avoid comments about someone’s appetite or weight as a general rule.


Handle disagreements respectfully. We won’t always see eye to eye on everything, but we can diffuse tense situations by refocusing on happy memories, setting clear boundaries, and communicating calmly. For more tips on de-escalating heated situations, check out our de-escalation guide.


Offer support and understanding during meltdowns and tantrums. Meltdowns and tantrums do happen, so it’s best to prepare for this with a prevention plan. But if a tantrum or meltdown does occur, refrain from passing judgment on the autistic person or their parents. Simply ask, “How can I support you right now?” You don’t have to be invasive or talk a lot, just ask the question and respect the person’s answer.


Handle tough conversations about autism and neurodivergence tactfully. Express your or your child’s needs, use “I statements” (“I feel that” rather than “You are making me”), and let people know how they can help. If things get too heated or someone places unrealistic expectations on you or your child, it’s okay to excuse yourselves and leave to establish boundaries.


9. Break with tradition or start new ones

Be vocal about what’s best and most comfortable for you and your family. Just because your family or friend group has done things a certain way doesn’t mean it has to be that way forever.


Feel empowered to make suggestions that can improve special gatherings and make them more accessible. Ask for input from loved ones, like, “I know we always do Secret Santa, but do you have any ideas for how we could exchange gifts differently?” 


Some families may enjoy staying at home during the holidays rather than attending big gatherings. Many people, especially autistic and neurodivergent guests, would prefer to skip family photos or uncomfortable matching outfits. If you’d rather eat a grilled cheese sandwich and binge-watch your favorite TV show on Thanksgiving instead of attending or hosting a large dinner, that’s okay.


Holiday gatherings can be a joyous and stressful time. There are steps you and your loved ones can take to ensure all your guests – neurotypical or neurodivergent – feel comfortable, included, and understood.


Hosting a family gathering or holiday? Here are our best tips for hosting an autism/neurodiverse-friendly party.

Are you or your child autistic? Check out our parents’ guide to accessible family gatherings!