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Expert de-escalation strategies for neurodiverse family gatherings (with examples of what you can say)

Autism de-escalation techniques for family gatherings

Updated: August 29, 2023 · 5 Minute Read

Marsha BCBA

Reviewed by:

Marsha Stepensky, MS.Ed, BCBA


  • Use statements that describe how you feel and what you or your child need. Start with “I feel…” instead of directing any blame on someone else.
  • Redirect the conversation by asking questions or focusing on happy memories. “What TV shows are you enjoying right now?” You can also walk away.
  • You should also understand your triggers and communicate your needs.

De-escalation tips for parents with special needs kids

Set boundaries ahead of time to prevent unnecessary drama. 

Communicate what behaviors you won’t accept and what the consequences will be. Set clear consequences if you or your child’s boundaries are violated.


Example: “I won’t be able to bring Bobby to family gatherings if everyone’s going to fight. It’s overwhelming to me and Bobby, and I won’t put him through it.”


Use “I” statements instead of “you” statements. 

Avoid telling other people that they’re “making” you feel a certain way. Use statements that describe how you feel and what you or your child need.


Example: “I understand that Ashley’s meltdowns are hard, but when you complain about her or critique my parenting, it hurts me. When she’s melting down, I need your understanding, patience, and support.”


Let difficult loved ones know what they can do to be helpful and supportive. 

Discuss these things before things get too tense, to prevent heated situations later on. People that love your child and care about you will be willing to accommodate your child’s unique needs. Instead of just telling them what they’re doing is wrong, tell them what’s right.


Example: “When Jaden is having a meltdown, you can help him feel better by reducing noise, lights, and making sure everyone gives us plenty of space.”


Let loved ones know ahead of time how you help your child through tough moments. 

If you prepare your family ahead of time so they know what to expect, it may ease some confusion and disagreement at the time of difficulty.


Example: “It’s possible that Allison will have a meltdown tonight. If that happens, it may be loud and scary for some people. I know how to help her through meltdowns, though, so it’s okay. I’ll take her to the quiet room we talked about and let her play on her tablet until she’s calm.”


Redirect the conversation or people’s attention. 

Put the focus back on family traditions, happy memories, and light fun. You can talk about what TV shows you’re currently watching or something interesting you read on social media. Ask questions. Be proactive about redirection – if you sense that tension is rising or that conversation is moving in a direction you or your child aren’t comfortable with.


Example: “Oh my gosh, Aunt Alice, you know what I just remembered? The time you made that fantastic casserole for Grandma’s birthday and it was all gone within 5 minutes!”


Another Example: "Yes, I know Marsha's meltdown was scary. She's OK, she's taking some time to calm down and she'll be out when she's ready. But I want to talk about you, how are you doing? What is new in your life?" 


If a fight or explosion does happen, and it’s clear people cannot remain calm, it’s probably best to end the conversation and disengage. 

It’s okay to walk away – for your sake and for your child’s sake.


Example: “I see and hear you’re upset, but it’s not okay for you to speak to me that way. When you’re feeling calm, we can try talking again.”

De-escalation tips for neurodivergent parents

Prepare to manage meltdowns.

If you’re at someone else’s house, let your host know you and your child’s needs ahead of time. Share with them ways they can support you and your child during the family gathering, and let them know what your plans are if things become too much. Communicating in advance and having that support plan in place can reduce overwhelm for you and your child and prevent meltdowns.


Know your own signals and triggers, and pay attention to them.

What are the signs your body gives when you're starting to feel overwhelmed? What are your favorite ways to calm down? Make sure you have a plan for yourself when you're going to gatherings. You won't be able to help your child if you are feeling overwhelmed and dysregulated. 


Designate someone you trust as “back up”.

Have another person who can support you and your child -- this could be your partner, the party host, or a family member or friend you are comfortable with. They can act as back up support in the event you're taking a break from the party and your child starts to get overwhelmed. Similarly, you may be tending to your child but realize you yourself are starting to max out, call on that person to step in and be with your child so you can take some time for yourself. We all know the expression "it takes a village" and in many ways it's true. Lean on the people around you who love you and understand you for support when you need it. 

For expert tips on preparing your family for the holidays, check out our guide to accessible and autism-friendly family gatherings.

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