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How to host an accessible, autism-friendly holiday party

How to host an accessible, autism-friendly holiday party

Updated: December 21, 2023 · 7 Minute Read

Amy Gong

Reviewed by:

Amy Gong, Neurodiversity Advocate

Highlights

  • Hosting family gatherings can be a stressful but rewarding experience, because you want to make sure all your guests have a great time. Your autistic or neurodivergent guests may have some unique needs or sensitivities that you should consider when planning your event.
  • Communicate with your guests openly and clearly about things like menu, times, expectations, and arrangements. Your autistic guests will likely find comfort in knowing what to expect, such as how long gatherings will last, what they need to bring, or what activities you’ll be doing.
  • Create at least one quiet/talk free space at your gathering so guests with autism can decompress when they need to. Make it a rule that there’s no judgment or snide remarks if someone needs to take breaks, go outside, have some screen time, or leave early. Don’t take it personally; this is your neurodivergent guest’s way of regulating.
  • Make it a flexible, judgment free gathering. Avoid comments about people’s appetite or appearance. Allow arrival and departure times to be flexible, and don’t put pressure on guests to attend every event or participate in every activity. Give guests the freedom to be themselves; they’ll have a better time, and so will you!
  • Prepare for your neurodivergent guests’ sensory sensitivities or challenges by making sure they have safe foods available, a quiet space, low-stimulation activities, reducing noise and decorations, etc. Dress for comfort and keep it casual to reduce sensory overload for your autistic guests.

source: Twitter

Hosting a holiday or get-together can be a rewarding experience, but it also comes with a lot of responsibility.  Here are 16 expert tips for helping everyone on your guest list feel included and welcome.

 

1. Make the gathering a judgment-free zone.

This means no one makes snide comments or draws attention to the use of tech, needing to withdraw for a bit or leave the table, or forgetting to say “please” and “thank you”. It’s about creating an understanding, no pressure environment so your autistic guests can feel free to do what they need to in order to prevent overwhelm and enjoy themselves. 

 

A judgment-free zone also includes giving people the permission to not attend every event or activity without shaming comments. As a general rule, it’s also good to avoid comments about guests’ weight or how much they ate/didn’t eat. Many autistic people use screen time to self-regulate. It’s not a lack of interest in what’s going on, nor is it intended to offend loved ones, or being “antisocial”. Guests should avoid drawing attention to someone’s use of devices or making negative remarks. 

 

If everyone at your gathering is free to be themselves without fear of judgy, hurtful comments, all your guests will feel welcomed, accepted, and comfortable.


source: Twitter

2. Keep it casual/low key.

You may want to pare down your decorations, reduce the number of events/activities or the length. Making your family gatherings a bit more chill and less formal can help your neurodivergent guests feel more comfortable. Reducing pressure to dress a certain way or eat a huge dinner will be a relief to your autistic guests. 

 

3. Take some of your family gatherings digital, or make them smaller.

If your family usually has multiple family gatherings in a fixed time frame (like multiple events for Christmas or Thanksgiving), try making some of those gatherings digital via Zoom or FaceTime. You can also gather in smaller groups rather than multiple large events. Many neurodivergent people prefer more intimate gatherings because it’s easier to have meaningful conversations, control sensory input (such as sound level), and prevent overwhelm. Moving some of your family gatherings into a video format will allow your guests with autism to relax and conserve energy for the in-person events most important to them.

 

4. Give guests an idea of what to expect, and allow flexible arrival and departure times.

Make it clear to guests that they’re not expected to arrive on time or stay longer than they’re comfortable with. Creating a casual event that guests can come and go from as needed will reduce pressure on your guests who have autism. Give your autistic guests an overview of the schedule for the day, too, so they can determine when it’s best to arrive and leave, or where to spend their energy. For example, “Dinner will be at 5pm, but everyone usually starts funneling in around 4pm.”

 

source: Twitter

5. Give everyone a preview of the menu, or let everyone bring their own dish.

Having “safe” food options is very important to autistic people. It’s nice to know you’ll have a familiar food you know you like at family gatherings where meals are served. Run your menu past your guests and be sure there’s something “safe” for all your neurodivergent guests. You can also make it a team effort by allowing each guest to bring a dish of their choosing, so that everyone brings at least one thing they love.


source: Twitter

6. Create flexible seating options.

This includes the type of seating (ball, chair, pillow) as well as the seating arrangements. Avoid “kids” and “adults” tables, and instead go for what feels comfortable to your guests. Some people may prefer eating by themselves or in a small group. Separating people based on age or perceived maturity level can be hurtful and cause arguments. Let your guests have the freedom to sit where they choose with seats that are comfortable to them.

 

7. Avoid unnecessary scents, noises, and other stimuli in order to create a more sensory-friendly experience.

It can be tempting to light your favorite scented candles or wear your favorite perfume, but forgo the additional scents which may overwhelm your autistic guests. Send out a note to everyone beforehand to skip perfumes or body sprays. Consider the lighting of your venue and opt for softer light rather than harsh fluorescent ones. You can ask guests to put their phones on silent and avoid extraneous noise. Oh, and try not to set off the smoke alarms!

 

8. Forgo gift exchanges or switch up your gift-giving.

Some autistic people may find giving and receiving gifts in group settings stressful. Well-meaning loved ones may be expecting a certain reaction or the person may feel pressure from giving/receiving gifts. If your family gathering includes exchanging gifts, try something new this year like trading recipes, poems, books, kind words, or getting specific about what each person would like. Surprise gifts can be overwhelming for some people with autism, so if you’re going to give them a gift, ask for a few things they might like and choose one of those things. You can’t go wrong with connecting gifts to your autistic loved one’s special interests!

 

9. Make at least one room in your home a quiet/no talking space.

This is the most requested accommodation for autistic people during family gatherings! Set aside a space in your home that is quiet, and show your neurodivergent guests where they can go to utilize the space. You may want to include a puzzle, books, a weighted blanket, or some fidgets in the room in case your guest needs them. Tell everyone to refrain from making negative comments when someone uses the quiet room. Guests with autism may need to spend a lot of time in a quiet room, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t enjoying themselves or don’t want to be there.


source: Twitter

10. Create spaces for simultaneous activities that are passive and active.

For example, you can have one room in your house that’s for low stimulation activities (like watching movies) and another room for high-energy activities like watching football or playing games. This allows your neurodivergent and neurotypical guests to mill around and pass from room to room depending on what their energy level is and how much stimulation they can handle at the moment. Giving your guests freedom to socialize (or not) in a variety of spaces with lower or higher sensory input can help them enjoy your gathering more and enhance the social experience for everyone.


source: Twitter

11. Utilize outdoor spaces for recreation and decompression.

Games that don’t require much talking, like chess, cornhole, or a drawing contest are great activities to add to your family gathering that allow your guests with autism to socialize more comfortably. Outdoor spaces are perfect for winding down, playing with pets, or just going for a walk to get some fresh air. Your guests will appreciate not being stuck in the house the whole time!

 

12. Set up food and other necessary items in a way that’s easily accessible and visible.

When visiting your space, your autistic guests may not know where you keep silverware or where to find extra toilet paper. This can add stress to an already stressful situation. Set up food items, drinks, utensils, napkins, plates, cups, etc. in an easily accessible place that your guests will be able to spot and maneuver easily. Leave extra toiletries in a visible place in restrooms, and if your guest with autism will be staying overnight, leave out towels or other necessary items where they can see them.

 

13. If your autistic guest is required to bring something, make your expectations clear.

When asking your guest with autism to provide a dish, drinks, or something else for your family gathering, be sure to let them know exactly what you’d like and how much. This removes unnecessary stress from your guest who may need clearer directions. For example, instead of saying, “Bring drinks for dinner tonight,” you can give specific instructions like “Bring a 12-pack of Dr. Pepper and a 12-pack of Pepsi.”

 

14. Use plates with dividers, and have to-go plates available.

Your autistic guest may not feel comfortable eating with everyone else, but that doesn’t mean they won’t enjoy the meal! Supply optional to-go plates for guests who would rather eat later. Many selective and picky eaters will enjoy plates that keep foods separate so they don’t touch. Make sure to refrain from negative comments about how someone eats, how much they eat, or how little they eat.

 

15. Make an effort to include and welcome neurodivergent guests, even if their participation is minimal.

Sometimes family gatherings can just be too much for autistic people, so they may opt to skip some (or all) of them. They may also arrive late, leave early, or not stay very long. This isn’t intended to hurt anyone, and it definitely doesn’t represent a lack of love for family or lack of interest in their family members. Continue to invite your loved one with autism to family gatherings and make them feel welcome when they are able to attend. Your loved one will enjoy feeling included and welcomed regardless of participation level.

 

source: Twitter

16. Don’t push photos or be too rigid about traditions.

A lot of people (and kids!) with autism dislike posing for photos or having to dress up in special outfits. Allow your guests to dress for comfort and participate in traditions only when they want to and have the energy. Traditions are beautiful but some traditions may be extremely stressful for your autistic guests. Let all your guests know it’s okay to opt out of traditions that cause them distress, and find alternative ways to share those special moments. For example, your autistic guest may want to avoid the camera, but they may be open to exchanging letters with loved ones or creating some other momento to remember the occasion.



Conclusion

As you can see, there are many ways you can make family gatherings more accommodating and enjoyable for your neurodivergent guests. Have any ideas we missed? Tell us about them in the Beaming Community!

 

If you find yourself in a difficult or intense situation, here are some things you can do and say in our de-escalation strategies guide.

 

If you are going to a gathering and need some expert tips, check out our guide to visiting someone else’s home for special events.

 

We would like to thank the autistic adults who contributed their ideas for this article through social media.

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