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A holiday survival guide for autistic teens and adults

Autism & Christmas: A holiday survival guide for teens and adults

Updated: August 11, 2023 · 5 Minute Read

Jeryn Cambrah

Written by:

Jeryn Cambrah

Highlights

  • Talk to your host or parent about what you need to feel comfortable. You might ask for a quiet room or what the schedule looks like.
  • Suggest ideas for a more neurodiversity-friendly party. You might ask that the music volume stay low or ask that you have the flexibility to leave early or join digitally.
  • Put yourself first. Listen to your body and take breaks when needed.

Family gatherings should be a joyful experience, but for many people with autism, they can be overwhelming, causing discomfort and dysregulation. If you’re an autistic teen or adult, you’ve probably already had your fair share of stressful family gatherings in the past. Maybe you wish you knew more effective ways to communicate your needs or get accommodations. Maybe you’d like to feel more understood and connected when you’re with your loved ones. Check out our list of 5 expert tips below for navigating family gatherings without masking or meltdowns.

 

1. Communicate openly with your host

Hopefully they’re someone you feel comfortable having a dialogue with, so you can inform them about any accommodations you may need and what to expect on the day of. Here are some good talking points to keep in mind:

 

  • Accommodations you may need. What do you need in order to stay regulated and enjoy yourself? No loud music or bright lights? A safe room you can retreat to for a break? It might be helpful to share what you do to relax (e.g. watching TV, playing games on your phone, resting with a weighted blanket, doodling, taking a walk).
  • Food and snacks. And if there aren’t any safe options for you, can they add one to the menu? Can you bring some of your favorite foods or snacks? If you’re supposed to bring something, what kind (brand or type) and how much? Explain that you need specific instructions to reduce your anxiety. E.g. “Aunt Ethel, what kind of rolls do you want me to bring and how many?”
  • The schedule and any planned activities. What activities are planned and how long will they last? It might be helpful to share that you may not be able to participate in every activity, and you may have to leave if things become too much. If so, it’s not personal or intended to be offensive. Your energy may shift and change throughout the course of the gathering, and sometimes you may prefer lower or higher stimulation. You’re not “anti-social” or uninterested in your loved ones.
  • Support and expectations. Share how they can help if you’re feeling overstimulated or overwhelmed (e.g. leave you alone, talk to you about a special interest, or whatever it is that helps you through intense moments). If you don’t feel comfortable speaking directly with your host, you can communicate these questions and concerns to your parent or caregiver so they can address them on your behalf.

 

2. Suggest ideas for a more neurodiversity-friendly gathering

Your loved ones may not know how to accommodate you or make you feel more comfortable. Here are some suggestions you can share with them:

 

  • Take some of your family events digital. If your family has a large number of in-person events, suggest moving some of them to FaceTime or Zoom. Explain that this will reduce pressure on you and prevent you from becoming too overstimulated. You’ll feel more comfortable and it will be easier to engage. Then you can reserve in-person gatherings for the people and events you enjoy the most.
  • Create a quiet space room. Add a “no quiet” sign outside to easily communicate the room’s rules. Other guests might appreciate this relaxing space and want to join too. If you prefer to be alone when you need this space, ask your host if people can lock themselves inside. 
  • Introduce a potluck or eat before the party. If guests can bring a favorite dish, everyone has something safe and tasty to eat. If you feel uncomfortable eating in front of others, try requesting a take-home plate or your own eating area so you can enjoy your meal in peace. It’s also okay to eat something you like before you arrive, or bring safe food with you, so that you don’t feel pressured to partake in the meal available. Go with whatever feels best for you.
  • Have flexible seating options. Add pillows, chairs, and balance balls in the space. Encourage allowing people to sit where they’re comfortable rather than exclusionary assigned seating (e.g. “kid’s table,” “grown-up table”) that can leave some feeling left out or infantilized.
  • Refrain from judgmental or negative comments. Hurt people hurt people, but this doesn’t mean we should accept this! Ask your host about how you can work together to make your family gathering a “judgment-free zone.” For more ideas to share with your host, check out our autism-friendly hosting guide.

 

3. Prepare for meltdowns

The holidays can be very triggering with bright lights, loud noises, overstimulating decor, and overlapping conversations from loved ones. Here’s how you can get ahead of meltdowns:

 

  • Bring things with you to help you regulate in case you feel overwhelmed. This can include noise-canceling headphones, fidget toys, a weighted blanket, your journal, technology (phone, tablet, etc.), and anything else that will help you feel calm.
  • Listen to your body and take breaks when needed. Are you restless? Thirsty? Overwhelmed? Go for a walk, spend some time in the quiet room, or leave early if you need to. Attend to your needs. Your health and safety is more important than hearing Cousin Doris’ proposal story for the thirteenth time.
  • Put yourself first before anyone else. If you have a child, especially a neurodivergent child, it’s especially important to ensure you’re paying attention to what your body and brain are telling you. It’s hard to help your child regulate if you are also feeling overwhelmed. Consider asking someone you trust (such as your spouse or a loved one) to be your “backup” in case you need to take a moment to decompress or aren’t able to be present.

 

4. Avoid the temptation to mask

Holiday events can carry a lot of pressure to act a certain way or behave more neurotypically to please loved ones. But masking can lead to a meltdown or autistic burnout later on. Learning to “unmask” can take some time, so be gentle on yourself. If you are able in the moment, you can kindly explain to loved ones that forcing yourself to “act normal” can cause you harm.

 

5. Set boundaries with your family members

Even our most well-meaning loved ones can sometimes say hurtful things or make judgmental or ignorant statements. The important thing to remember here is that you are allowed to set boundaries. Here’s how:

 

  • Use “I” statements instead of telling someone what they’re doing wrong. For example, “I feel like you’re invalidating my feelings right now,” instead of “You’re making me sound dramatic!” 
  • Let family members know what behaviors or comments you aren’t okay with. Explain what the consequences will be if those boundaries are violated. (E.g. “If you continue to say I’m not really autistic, I will have to leave dinner.”) 
  • Equip yourself with facts. Ideally, you’ll want to share helpful information about autism and neurodiversity whenever you come across something you feel will be beneficial to your loved ones. But in the absence of handy articles or videos, the best way to conquer misinformation or assumptions is with facts. (Knowledge is power!)


For more tips on diffusing heated conversations, check out our holiday de-escalation guide.

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