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Holiday Harmony: A Guide for Neurodivergent Families

For many of us, the winter holidays are a magical time of year. We look forward to spending time with family and friends, pour our love into cooking and hosting, and make sure we have just the right gifts picked out for our loved ones. Everything is lit up and beautiful, and no one should be stressed or unhappy. The kids don’t have to go to school, they get fun new toys, and the family gets to spend time together. What is there to worry about?

 

Well, if you’re the parent of a neurodivergent child, or if you are ND yourself, the holidays might be a whole different story in your household. Increased meltdowns, anxiety through the roof, desperately trying to keep the kids busy – it can feel like you’re failing during a time when the world tells you it’s all about peace and love.

 

If you look forward to the holiday season with a sense of dread instead of joyful anticipation, just know you are not the only one. There are thousands of people out there just like you who know that they will have to make some careful plans and accommodations for themselves or their children to survive the holidays. In this post, we will talk about some of the reasons why the holidays can be such a stressful time, and share some strategies that may help things go more smoothly.

 

Why All The Fuss?

 

If you are one of the people who turns on Mariah Carey as soon as Halloween has passed, or who has an extensive and cool collection of menorah, or if you love the press of family and neighbors during Las Posadas, it can be hard to fathom why someone would find the holidays an awful, stressful time. Let’s talk about some of the factors that can be hard to cope with if you are neurodivergent, and why they can cause so much stress!

 

Changes In Routine

 

This is maybe one of the biggest stressors on the ND brain. Often times we struggle with anxiety, overwhelm, decision fatigue, and an overall hard time keeping ourselves regulated, and many of us rely heavily on routines and rituals as touchstones throughout our day, week, or month.

 

If we know we will go get coffee with our BFF every Friday morning, that gives us something to look forward to. If we have a specific bedtime ritual every night to help our body and brain wind down, it can be impossible to sleep without it. With that in mind, think about all the changes in routine that the holiday season can bring!

 

If your child is used to going to school every morning, then an extended break – or even late openings due to weather – can make the whole day feel very different. Many kids might not have a firm grasp of days of the week just yet, but have gotten into the rhythm of five school days, then two weekend days, and will start to get upset by the fourth or fifth day out of schedule.

 

Kids may have to share their space with siblings or family members to make room for guests coming to stay, or they may be traveling to other relatives’ houses. It can be especially challenging to not have your own space and your own things to unwind, or to not have the privacy you are used to! And having more people in your home adds more energy, bodies, and talking to the common spaces. While some of us thrive on being around people, many more of us need time and space for recovery after interacting with others.

 

Social Expectations

 

Holidays are awash with increased social demands including being away from your friends, seeing relatives that you only interact with once a year, remembering the holiday scripts and expected responses, and making sure you look properly grateful when opening gifts.

 

Do you have relatives that insist on that kiss on the cheek, grill your child about their grades and friends, criticize things that they interpret as disrespect? Different families and households have different social and communication norms, and these can often conflict when multiple households come together and share space.

 

Gift giving is also intensely stressful for many ND kids and adults alike. It can be hard for us to make our face match what we feel inside, leading to us having to explain why we don’t “look grateful” or “seem happy” about gifts. We are often really particular about needing certain brands or flavors of things for consistency and sensory sensitivities, but are labeled as picky or ungrateful if someone gives us something different. And for those of us with anxiety around being in the spotlight, opening a gift in front of the giver can feel like torture.

 

Sensory Sensitivities

 

So many of us are extra sensitive to light, smells, sounds, and too many bodies in a space. Now take us out of our safe home environment and expect us to travel long distances in a car, sleep somewhere different, and eat different foods, and there is a whole lot more stress on the sensory systems! All of this can lead to poorer sleep, which in turn will lower our tolerance for sensory stressors.

 

Sitting at a table for a meal, which can be more of an expectation at holiday gatherings, may be difficult for a child with a need to move, or someone who struggles to sit “properly” in a chair without pain. Strong food and drink smells can cause a loss of appetite or even nausea, and keeping up with a conversation is tricky with so many people around!

 

So What to Do?

 

If you have a loved one who struggles with big holiday changes, be patient before all else. Understand that big deviations from routine, more pressure from social interactions, and sensory triggers are all hard to cope with, and that lots of little changes add up.

 

The more you can prepare your child for what to expect, the better. Can you show them pictures of Nana’s house and the room where they will be sleeping? Can you share a social story of what it might be like to open presents in the morning? Can you let them see a lit candle and explain how to stay safe?

 

Bring as much familiarity along with you as possible, or keep familiar and safe spaces if you are decorating your home. Let them have their safe foods, even at family dinner, and bring a favorite and familiar toy or tablet for distraction and self-regulation.

 

Speaking of screen time, remember that it can be very regulating for us! Consider relaxing screen time rules around the holidays – screens can be an easy escape or a quick regulatory fix for an over-socialized person. Don’t forget the headphones!

 

A safe place to go, like a quiet bedroom or office, can be a sanctuary during family events! Try to have a quiet place planned out in advance, and let your child know they are welcome to use it whenever they feel like the bustle is a bit too much.

 

Gift opening can also be extra stressful, so talk with your child ahead of time about what they would prefer to do. Are they comfortable opening gifts in front of the family, or would they rather do so privately or a little later when things are quieter? The pressure of appearing properly grateful, making sure your face is right and you say the right things, can cause extreme anxiety and turn gift-opening into a demand rather than a pleasure.

 

Advocating

 

Most importantly, advocate for your child and their needs. Do not make them feel like a burden for the accommodations and supports that might help them stay regulated and engaged. Educate your family members or community members about sensory differences and social anxiety, and take a zero-tolerance policy for teasing, even by family members.

 

For those who are unfamiliar with the needs of autistic children, especially those of older generations, supports might look like “spoiling” or disrespect. Make sure that any criticism of your child’s supports and accommodations happens out of their hearing, and that you are standing up for their needs as just that – needs.

 

Don’t force socialization or conversation, and try your hardest not to encourage masking! You can help your child with scripts for their sensory and communication preferences, such as “I’m not looking at you but I’m still listening” or “No thank you, I don’t like hugs.” And it may help to have a code word or phrase that your child can use with you that lets you know they are approaching their limit and need to excuse themselves.

 

If your child needs an accommodation that is a bigger change of plan, like leaving an event early or opening their gifts privately, let your hosts know of your intentions but do not leave room for debate. Though mothers and grandmothers are famous for their guilt trips, don’t let their feelings take precedence over the needs of your child. You are doing the right thing by respecting your child’s capacity and limits!

 

In Summary

 

For neurodivergent families, holidays can be a stressful blur of deviation from routine, leaving your home base, navigating social rituals that you only perform at major holidays, and fending off sensory assaults. Be gentle with yourselves and your loved ones, and understand that your child may need some extra patience.

 

Equip your neurodivergent child with knowledge of what to expect, bring familiar sensory supports, establish a quiet space to retreat to, and consider relaxing screen time rules. Above all, advocate for your child’s needs within your extended family, helping them to understand that these supports are not just wants, but essential to helping your child to actually enjoy their holiday.

 

And as you navigate the holiday currents and storms, remember that your commitment to respecting your child’s capacity and limits is an invaluable gift in itself. You are doing a great job – hang in there!

 

 

 

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