Holiday gatherings can be a great way to enjoy new friends or long-standing family traditions. They can also present challenging situations for autistic kids, teens, and adults. Based on the comments from autistic adults and parents to autistic individuals, we’ve put together some points to consider when navigating gatherings with family and friends.
“Discussing what to expect and then with everything I can think of, what we can do for each ‘line item.’”
–Parent of an Autistic Adult
How long will travel time be? Who will be there? What will happen before and after the meal? Being able to preview the event as much as possible and plan will help everyone be as prepared as possible. Pay particular attention to elements that might be challenging, like the noise and chaos of first arrival, or people asking lots of questions. Think of strategies that will help manage each element, and discuss what the options are.
Planning could also mean communicating with family and friends ahead of time about what you or your family member needs or finds challenging. Could you ask if there’s a separate room you could use if you need a quiet place to take a break? Would it help to give a heads up to relatives that repeated questions might make your autistic child feel anxious? Could you brainstorm with the host about a shared activity that might be regulating, like having a big puzzle available for everyone to work on together?
One family said they decided to do a group “news update” at family gatherings where they went around the circle and people took turns giving a few highlights of what was happening. Another alternative is to have one person give the update for the people in their immediate family. That way, each person wouldn’t have to repeat the same information over and over one-on-one, which eased conversation demands. Think creatively about ways to make things easier for everyone, and let people know ahead of time.
“Having a tool arsenal is something I’ve been doing since before I can remember. I always leave the house with a backpack stocked with my handheld games and books in case I need to entertain myself since I am not great in social environments.”
It can be wonderful to reconnect with family and friends, but there can be aspects to family gatherings that might cause stress for autistic individuals: elevated sound levels with multiple conversations in the room, lots of cooking smells filling the air, or people expecting hugs and constant conversation. The sensory stimulation or the social demands might become overwhelming. Some autistic individuals may need ways to take breaks, find a quiet space, take a walk in the fresh air, or use other methods to manage their environment.
If you are autistic, it might be helpful to think of some things ahead of time to say if you are starting to feel uncomfortable or overloaded. To let people know you need a break, you could say something like, “I’m going to take a walk,” or “I need a little time to myself.” If it would be helpful, you can also identify someone at the gathering who you trust or think is friendly, and get into a one-on-one conversation with them. You could also find a group that is having a conversation that seems interesting and just listen in.
If you are a friend, family member, or host, make sure the autistic person knows the options they have if they need to take a break. Don’t assume that an autistic individual who is sitting off in a quiet corner reading a book or listening to music on headphones is lonely or not having a good time. Recognize that they may need to take time and space to self-regulate.
“Sometimes even just having a comfort object in my pocket helps a little.”
“Carrying something with you to comfort you: Worry stones.”
What will make things easier? If an object like a piece of soft fabric helps you manage unfamiliar environments, or if noise cancelling headphones helps manage the sound overload, be sure to bring it with you. If you are a family member to an autistic child or teen, what helps them regulate if they become overwhelmed? Talk about what they need ahead of time, and make sure they have what they need when they need it.
“Never bring anything to a potluck you wouldn’t take home later and eat.”
One person’s holiday menu jewel might be someone else’s aversion. Think ahead of time of what will be offered to eat, or just ask. If there is nothing available that you or your autistic family member is willing to eat, see if you can contribute a dish you know will work. Have a protein bar with you, or some other small snack, in case your eating timetable doesn’t match when food is being served.
Even the best planning and preparation can still mean that things may go awry. You cannot foresee every variable, and sometimes the unexpected happens. Don’t be hard on yourself if things go wrong. Try to see it as an opportunity to educate others, practice flexibility, and learn, which will help you the next time around.