Tips for accessible and autism-friendly family gatherings
Updated: August 29, 2023 · 9 Minute Read
Marsha Stepensky, MS.Ed, BCBA
- Hosting family or visiting someone else’s home for special events can be uncomfortable and jarring for your autistic child. Traveling or excess stimulation in their regular environment can throw off their routine and make regulating difficult for them.
- Plan to prevent meltdowns by keeping your child’s routine as same as possible and reducing harmful triggers. If you’re traveling, bring along toiletries, foods, comfort items, and sensory items that your child already knows and likes. Give your child recovery days and downtime in between events or activities.
- Ensure there’s a quiet space your child can retreat to if they become overwhelmed. Allow them to use the methods they find comforting to regulate themselves, like screen time, weighted blankets, fidget toys, etc.
- Communicate your child’s needs and challenges in advance so that everyone is on the same page. Have an action plan in place if your child becomes overwhelmed, or if you become overwhelmed and need help. Let people know how they can help you and your child be more comfortable.
- Be understanding and flexible; do what’s right for your child and family, regardless of social pressure. It’s perfectly valid to skip events or arrive late and depart early. You are your child’s champion, so don’t feel guilty setting boundaries or calmly diffusing tense situations when necessary.
Here’s our guide for stress-free family gatherings, so you and your kiddo can stop worrying and just enjoy the holiday season!
While the holidays can be exciting, they can also be overwhelming for kids with autism or similar developmental differences. Having overnight guests or visiting a new place can be disruptive to your autistic child’s routine.
Prepping the environment for your autistic child
Hosting a family gathering at your home means causing a disruption in your child’s normal routine. There’s more people, voices, noises, smells, and activities that aren’t the norm. Traveling to someone else’s home can also be overwhelming, as it’s a new environment without the familiarity of home. It’s not uncommon for autistic kids to experience discomfort or stress and increased stimming or challenging behaviors while traveling or during a visit from loved ones. To prepare for these changes and reduce stress on your child, here are some tips:
Decorate your home gradually, and let your child help.
Kids on the spectrum can be easily overwhelmed by the business of decor and the abrupt change. They’re used to your home looking and feeling a certain way, so participating in the process and decorating a little at a time can give your child time to adjust while making it a fun activity. Some kids really love decorating, while others may find lots of decorations too stimulating.
Skip decorations that may cause your child to be overwhelmed or tempt them to fixate. If you’re visiting someone else’s home, talk with them beforehand about decor. You can tell them what your child’s triggers are. For example, it might not be a good idea for Grandma Pearl to display her priceless crystal vase where your child can reach it! My great aunt has a collection of thousands of decorative owls… I let her know before we visit that my son is definitely not going to leave them alone.
Communicate with loved ones ahead of time about your child’s needs and triggers.
Let them know how your child communicates, what they like to eat, what they like to do, etc.
Ask about quiet spaces/rooms to take a break if you’re staying at someone else’s house. Feel empowered to tell family members things that bug you your child – like repeated questions might make your autistic child feel anxious, or that vacuuming will upset them. It may even be helpful to make a list of your child’s triggers and what they need to be comfortable with beforehand, then send it out to loved ones in a text or email. That way, you’re not scrambling to address things when they pop up.
Discuss food options and the menu with your host or guests before the big day. Does your child need a separate area to sit during meal time, or do they prefer a certain seat at the table? Do they need a certain temperature in order to sleep comfortably? Be mindful of what your child will need to be comfortable and communicate those things.
Address safety concerns and create a plan of action in case your child elopes or becomes lost. You can contact the local police and fire departments in advance to let them know your child has autism and will be visiting. Provide them with the address of where you’ll be staying and the dates of your visit. The location of door locks, chemicals and medications in the home, as well as child-proofing problem areas is an important conversation to have in advance.
If you’re staying in your own home, it may be a good idea to put a visual reminder near entry and exit doors to keep them locked. Visitors often forget verbal reminders to shut doors or lock them when they move through rooms, leaving usually off-limits areas open to your curious kiddo. If you’ve got baby gates up (who doesn’t, am I right?!) show people how to lock and unlock them, etc.
Spread out activities and social situations, and leave a “recovery day”.
This can be a bit tricky to do if you’re hosting loved ones, but if you’ve got, say, two or three houses to visit, try to space those visits out to reduce strain on your autistic child. It’s also helpful to give your child a break from all the hustle and bustle, so schedule a “recovery day” – a day to do nothing, hang out, listen to music, play, whatever – at home after each set of guests or trip.
If your relatives are visiting your home, set aside a quiet place for your child and a special activity for them so they can avoid the hustle and bustle as your guests funnel in. You can even space out the arrival of guests to give your child some time to adjust. For example, one group can come a few days early, the next group the day before, and the next group the day of. Your strategy and scheduling will vary depending on your family’s individual needs and what works best for you, but the main point is to give your child some downtime in between all these arrivals and departures. Some children with autism may prefer if you also stagger arrival times, while some may be disturbed by frequent door openings/closings and lots of “hellos” and “goodbyes”. If you can, ask which option would be best – does your child want to get it all over with at once, or would they like some time in between?
Relax rules like “no technology during family time” and “no leaving the table before you’re finished”. Many autistic people use devices to self-regulate, so “no phone” rules can actually make things more difficult for your autistic child. Allowing your child to come and go from the table or activities to their quiet space can help them when they’re feeling overwhelmed. If you’re visiting someone else’s home, you can just let loved ones know that your child isn’t being “antisocial” or trying to be rude, they need a little more screen time, movement, or breaks in order to feel better.
It’s okay to leave early, arrive late, or opt out of family gatherings. There are many reasons your autistic child may not be able to stay the duration of the family gathering. Don’t feel guilty or embarrassed if you have to duck out early or opt out of certain events altogether.
Create a family codeword so that your child (or any member of your family) can let you know they’re ready to leave. Pushing your autistic child (or yourself, or any family member) past their limits will likely only result in a much bigger issue than just leaving early. It can feel like a lot of pressure to attend every family event, to be on time or stay until the very end. But putting your child’s needs and your family’s well being above those expectations is valid and important.
Let your host know you’ll be playing things by ear. Base your attendance, including number of events, arrival times and duration of stay, on what feels best and safest for your child and family. There’s no need to force things or put your family through unneeded stress. You may even find that opting out of certain events or staying less time feels more enjoyable and takes the pressure off your family.
Don’t be afraid to break with tradition or create new ones!
This can look like creating alternatives to or skipping long standing traditions that don’t align with your family’s interests or your child’s needs. It can also look like changing up the usual routine to make it fit your family’s needs better. For example, your family may enjoy visiting relatives before Christmas, then cozying up for breakfast and movies on the day of. Instead of a big birthday party, your child may enjoy an outing related to their special interest, or a family game night at home. Family gatherings are meant to be a joyful experience, so go with whatever makes your child and your family feel most comfortable and engaged.
Preparing your autistic child and keeping them comfortable
Guests flooding your home, or traveling to someone else’s home for family gatherings, can be overwhelming for your child. There’s overlapping conversations, likely lots of physical touch, the smells of delicious food, other kids running around, and perhaps a critter or two! While all of these things may be exciting, they can also be triggering for your child with autism. Here are some ways you can reduce your autistic child’s anxiety and help them make the most out of family gatherings.
Keep your child’s routine the same as much as possible.
Hosting guests can often mean new sleeping arrangements, eating out (or somebody else in the kitchen), different meal or sleep times, and more. Try to keep your child’s routines, especially meal and bedtimes, the same. If your child has a particular place they sit at the dinner table, or a certain area they play, try to keep that space unchanged just for them. It may also be helpful to keep your child’s room a “safe” space that doesn’t change, so they can retreat to it when they feel overwhelmed. Many autistic children find comfort in routine, so sticking to the program can bring them comfort in the midst of all these exciting changes.
This goes for visits away from home, too. Try bringing their favorite things, including toys, snacks/food, blankets, sheets, and toiletry products (shampoo, toothpaste, etc.). Keeping things as familiar as possible can help your child stay regulated. For more tips on traveling with your autistic child, check out our travel guide.
Take breaks as needed and prepare to prevent meltdowns. There are aspects to family gatherings that might cause stress for autistic individuals: elevated sound levels, multiple conversations happening at the same time, lots of cooking smells in the air, candle smells in the air, people expecting hugs/giving you hugs without asking. The sensory stimulation or the social demands might become overwhelming. If your child becomes overwhelmed by a lot of people, sound, or activity, make a plan ahead of time to help them avoid having a meltdown. Know where quiet/private spaces are for them to retreat to. Bring activities they enjoy – games, books, music, art activities, or even a mini sensory bin they can play with. An “emergency kit” filled with items that help when your child is feeling overwhelmed (such as noise-canceling headphones, a weighted blanket, fidgets, etc.) can also be helpful.
You may find that your child needs to withdraw more often than usual and spend time alone enjoying their tablet or preferred activities. This is normal, and not something you or your child should feel ashamed of. You can politely explain to your guests or host that your child isn’t trying to be rude by not socializing, they’re just doing what they need to do in order to feel better. It’s not personal.
Give your child a clear picture of what to expect, so they can mentally prepare. Using social stories or a picture schedule can be helpful for giving your child an idea of what to expect during your family’s gatherings. Knowing what to expect can reduce stress and overwhelm for your child on the spectrum. Think about what your family will be doing, and create a schedule to show your child what that looks like. This can include when you’ll be eating, what you’ll do before and after the meal (nap, watch TV, play a board game, etc.), as well as information about the environment (music playing in the background, lots of other kids, things like that) and who will be there (Grandma, Grandpa, Uncle Bob, cousins, etc.). You can even show your child pictures or videos from previous family gatherings to give them a feel for what it will be like!
Let your child know where they can go if they’re feeling upset or overwhelmed. This is where the quiet space comes in that you prepared in previous tips. Show them, using pictures or actually taking them to the area yourself, that this is their space when they’re feeling big feelings. You can also preview topics of conversation, social expectations, and more of what your child should expect and how to handle situations when they come up.
Teach your child it’s okay to hold boundaries if they’re uncomfortable. Consent is important, and while many of us were raised to “give Uncle Joe a kiss” even when we didn’t want to, we now know more and can do better for our own kids. Many autistic children are uncomfortable with physical touch, being peppered with questions, or an invasion of their personal space.
Let your child know it’s okay to politely refuse contact they’re not comfortable with. It’s also okay to excuse themselves from situations that are uncomfortable. Whether your child is autistic or neurotypical, they don’t owe anyone physical touch. There are ways they can express gratitude for gifts, compliments, or treats without having to touch someone. Feel empowered to let guests (including family members) know that you honor and respect everyone’s bodily autonomy and right to not be touched. Tell people if you or your child doesn’t like to be hugged or touched. Offer alternatives for greetings -- waves, fist bumps, blow kisses, or even a smile. (You can talk about this with your child first and find out what they’re okay with.)
If your child is nonverbal or doesn’t have an understanding of how to express these things yet, be watchful and advocate on your child’s behalf. For example, if you sense your child is overwhelmed by sitting at the table with everyone else, it’s okay to move them to a quieter, less busy area so they can eat and enjoy their meal. It’s not rude to do what’s best for them!
If your child is a picky or selective eater, it’s okay to bring their own food or let them eat ahead of time, if that’s what is needed. You can discuss this with the host and politely let them know it’s nothing against their cooking, it’s just what you need to do to make sure your child is fed and comfortable.
Avoid forcing your child to try new foods or “clean the plate.” Also advocate for your child when well-meaning loved ones insist on it. If you’re staying over at someone else’s home, keep plenty of your child’s favorites around so they always have access to something they enjoy eating.
Keep their go-to foods easily accessible. You may notice a decrease in your child’s appetite as they may be anxious in these unfamiliar situations, but favorite snacks (where they can see them, if possible) will encourage them to eat. It’s also important to remember that sometimes autistic people can be overhungry to the point they can’t eat, because eating itself becomes an overwhelming idea. One way you can overcome this is by getting ahead of your child’s hunger and offering snacks in between their regular meal times.
If your child has difficulty in social situations, you can help them think of talking points and activities to do with other kids beforehand. You can write these down to help your child remember, but picking topics in advance your child enjoys talking about can help grease the wheels of awkward social interactions. You can even prepare activities for all the kids to do together (such as crafts or games) so your child will feel less pressure to be “on” socially.
You can come up with “icebreaker” questions or conversation strategies together to put your child’s anxiety at ease. For example, “My favorite subject in school is math, what’s yours?” You can also teach your child what to expect socially, or other nuances they may not be aware of. For example, “We pray before dinner, but you don’t have to hold hands if you’re uncomfortable.”
You can teach your child calming strategies like deep breaths or taking a break in case the situation becomes overwhelming or they’re not sure what to do. Let your child know they don’t have to socialize if they don’t want to.
Let your child know it’s okay to be themselves. Even though you may feel pressure from loved ones and their expectations, try not to pressure your child to “mask” (behave more neurotypical or “normal”). Let your child know they are wonderful just the way they are, and they don’t have to pretend things don’t bother them, or try to do what everyone else is doing.
Politely and gently correct others when they place unrealistic expectations on your child, like demanding eye contact. As parents, we may feel like we have to “control” our child in these situations and may even feel embarrassed if our autistic child’s behaviors don’t match what other people want (such as participating in activities). But it’s not fair to compare a purple crayon to a yellow marker! They’re different, but they both color beautifully. Encourage your child to be who they are, regardless of the setting. It is not disrespectful to be different. Here’s a guide to difficult conversations that may help you navigate confrontations with your loved ones.
Allow your child to dress for comfort. While we all like cute family photos in matching outfits, many children with autism have sensory sensitivities to textures, like certain fabrics, elastics, buttons, or clothing labels. Allow your kiddo on the spectrum to wear what’s comfortable for them, even if it’s not the aesthetic you were hoping for. You can get creative using comfy pieces your child will love, such as opting for their existing clothing in colors or patterns that will still look nice for the season! (It’s also perfectly fine if your child doesn’t want to be in pictures at all.)
Don’t force “please”, “thank you”, greetings, or gestures like thank you cards. Besides being just one more thing for your autistic child to worry about, these social conventions add a lot of pressure to kids instead of allowing them to develop and display gratitude naturally in a way that feels honest to them. Your child will already be devoting a lot of energy to trying to socialize, follow directions, and manage themselves under the stress of watching eyes, sounds, smells, and textures, without the added task of having to worry about being perfectly well-mannered.
At what point is it okay to leave or skip a family gathering?
It’s perfectly valid to skip family gatherings that you know will upset your child, or leave early when you see your child becoming distressed. Your child’s happiness, wellbeing, and comfort come first.
As a parent, you should feel empowered to ask questions about the event and assess if there will be any issues or concerns. If there are, are they manageable? Will you and your child still be able to have fun? If the answer to those questions is no, it may be a good idea to opt out. My personal rule is if I see that my son is dysregulating and I feel strongly that he won’t be able to regulate there, we will leave. When I know that my attempts to help him feel better won’t work because of the environment he’s in, the natural solution is to change his environment.
Don’t feel guilty for saying, “I’m sorry, we won’t be able to make it.” Gatherings can be extremely stressful and triggering for children with autism. There’s nothing wrong with putting your child’s needs first. The friends and family who care about you will be understanding of your decision. If your child is having a rough day and it becomes clear it’s not a good time to visit, it’s okay to change your RSVP on the day of. Just politely inform your host you can’t make it, and you’d love to see them another time. Hopefully you feel comfortable enough with the host that you can be honest about your reason for not attending.
Family gatherings can be stressful for children on the spectrum and their parents, but with preparation and communication, you can navigate the tough stuff and focus on enjoying yourselves. 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.
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