It’s almost that time of year when we get to celebrate family with traditions, food, laughter and gifts…

but for some, all of those things can bring a lot of anxieties. For those of us with neurodivergent family members or even those of us who are neurodivergent ourselves, the business, chaos and high expectations can be overwhelming. Years ago when my son was younger, we set some boundaries with family about holiday gatherings. It wasn’t easy for everyone to understand, but in the long run, we still are able to enjoy each other, the traditions that are most important and the best part is that EVERYONE can take part in the day.

Here are some tips for an inclusive holiday gathering.

  1. Create a plan or schedule. 

    … and share it with the family who needs a heads up on what to expect. Just knowing what to expect will reduce some anxieties about doing things out of routine.

  2. Ask about safe foods.

    Sometimes family members may have a limited diet and despite how many times we ask them to just try the figgy pudding… it isn’t a safe food so just trying it wont help. Neither will the “if they are hungry they will eat” mantra. Ask if there is something safe you can have available and don’t be offended if they bring their own brand of nuggets alongside your Christmas roast.

  3. Create a calm space.

    It doesn’t have to be fancy, just a room with a door will do. Give your family member a heads up that if they need a break, even if it’s during the gift exchange… you have space available for a recharge. Bonus if you add low lights, soft blankets or fidgets too!

  4. Plan a few distractions.

    Having a toolbox of new or engaging toys or activities can be a good distraction for when you notice someone is becoming escalated. Ask your family members to bring their own, or head to the dollar store to find something fun. When in doubt stacking red solo cups can be hours of distraction!

  5. Opening presents.

    Gift giving is supposed to be enjoyable for everyone, but the stress of opening gifts in a group, not knowing what to say, all the excitement… it can be a lot. Allow for opening gifts at home, before the gathering or in a quiet space alone. Don’t be offended by unexpected comments, some gifts take time to love.

  6. Picture taking.

    While we want the perfectly posed pictures in matching jammie’s, posed pictures can be a HUGE source of stress or a trigger for a meltdown. Opt for casual pictures instead or set up expectations ahead of time for how many pictures to expect, and if they can’t do that, be understanding.

  7. Prepare other family members.

    All of these suggestions are helpful, but are better if everyone is on board. It doesn’t matter if “that’s the way we’ve always done it,” holiday gatherings should be enjoyable for everyone. You don’t have to give up everything, but we can make a few adjustments to reduce stress for the people we care about.

Most importantly, be flexible. Gatherings like these are out of routine for many of our kids. While we wish they can roll with the punches, sometimes it just doesn’t go that way. Even when we plan and prepare and everyone does their best, a change in routine, new people, new places, new experiences can be too much.

When frustrations arise, remind yourself that holiday gatherings should be fun for everyone!

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