Virtually everything about this season is antithetical to neurodivergent neurology; the bright lights, strong smells, loud music, busy shops, gatherings of family and loved ones and higher than normal expectations to socialize for long periods of time (to name a few.)
All things considered, the holiday season is something many neurodivergent people dread, myself included. So to help you extend a lifeline to the autistic people in your life this holiday season, here is a list of 10 ways to make this season more neurodivergent-accessible.
1. Provide Lots of Snacks!
Parties and gatherings can be absolutely overwhelming for autistic people. By providing snacks, you are also providing a positive sensory experience which can help an autistic person to better manage incoming sensory information.
Try to make sure you are offering foods that you know the autistic person finds enjoyable. Don’t hesitate to consult with them on some of their favorite foods before the party, and don’t underestimate the comforting power of a familiar food.
2. Avoid small talk!
Even if you are unable to inform other guests ahead of time that your autistic guest would prefer discussing a topic they are particularly passionate about than small talk, you can be a social respite for your autistic guest.
Many (but not all) autistic people have areas of passionate interests (often called “special interests”) that we would much prefer discussing instead of “small talk.”
If you don’t already know what your autistic guest is passionate about, feel free to ask them. In general, we will appreciate the opportunity to “info dump” (share our knowledge) about our area of “special interest.”
Knowing there is at least one person at the gathering who won’t subject them to small talk will likely make your autistic guest more comfortable.
The same actually goes for non-speaking and semi-speaking autistic people. Many non-speaking autistic people use assistive communication devices and will still be able to communicate with you.
Also, understand that even sitting and eating alongside an autistic person or doing another parallel activity with them is a form of communication and will help them feel included.
3. Encourage the Use of Sensory Aids.
If you can, let your autistic guest know beforehand that you encourage them to bring any sensory aids with them that they find helpful (like noise canceling headphones, sunglasses, “stim” or fidget toys like chewelry, fidget spinners, sensory dough, etc.)
Even just letting the autistic person know that they are encouraged to bring any aids that they find helpful will likely help them feel less likely to be self-conscious about using their aids.
Also, provide as many sensory aids as you can. If you don’t already own or can’t afford noise canceling headphones, foam earplugs can be an acceptable and inexpensive substitute.
Sunglasses are generally easy enough to lend or buy some inexpensive pairs for the party, if an autistic person doesn’t already own a pair.
One of my favorite “stim” objects is a tiny plastic slinky. I get them in bulk off of Amazon and they’re discreet and very helpful for regulating emotions and sensory needs in the moment. Sensory aids need not be expensive or complicated and any will be greatly appreciated.
The next suggestion for accommodations is a natural extension of #3, and it is:
4. Provide as Low a Stimulatory Environment as Possible.
Instead of having music blasting so that it can be heard over conversation, try playing the music on low as very subtle background music.
Instead of having every light on in the house, try relying on dimmer switches, soft candlelight, light from a fireplace, string lights, etc. Not only does this accommodate autistic people better, it provides an even more magical and cozy ambiance for everyone.
Instead of using powerful scents like air fresheners or plugins, try lighting just a few scented candles here and there (or go scent-free.)
Instead of having your heat turned up all the way, try to keep the temperature neutral – not too hot, not too cold. All of the body heat from the guests will add up over time and can often become oppressive to autistic people.
In general, aim for moderation. This will make the environment more accessible to the autistic person and allow them to spend more time in the party.
It will also create a laid back ambiance that even neurotypical party goers will find as a refreshing change of pace from the bright, flashy hallmarks of the season.
5. Create a Designated Recovery Room.
Even with doing all of the above, the autistic person still may reach or exceed their threshold for stimulation and need to be able to retreat to somewhere that they can regulate and recover.
The existence of this space should be made known to the autistic person ahead of the party, if at all possible, or disclosed upon their arrival (a simple, “hey, just wanted to let you know that the bedroom upstairs is available if you need to get away from the party for a while,” will suffice) and they should be encouraged to make full use of it, should they find they need to, at any point during the party.
This space would ideally be away from the main party spaces. If you have one, provide a weighted blanket and encourage the autistic person to feel free to lay down on the bed to relax, even nap if needed.
If you have one, put a box fan and/or noise machine in the room to help drown out any party noise so the person can take off their headphones or take earplugs out (these can become overwhelming when worn for a long time and can certainly be uncomfortable to lay down while wearing.)
If the room has a dimmer switch, that is great, but if not, try to provide an alternate source of light which is much dimmer than standard overhead lights, such as a salt lamp or strong nightlight.
If you don’t have these types of spaces or resources, or aren’t comfortable offering your own bedroom, try to at least designate some space away from the party, like a porch, basement, or dining room.
If your gathering is in a public space, try to make note of possible adjacent spaces an autistic person can withdraw to if needed, and make these known to the autistic person.
6. If You Have Them, Bring Out Your Pets!
Often, autistic people will gravitate towards any animals present in a party, and these animals can help decrease the autistic person’s anxiety dramatically, thereby allowing them to stay in the party longer.
If you do not want your pets to be out in the main party space because they may not be well behaved, or there is a guest with a fear of animals or an allergy to them, let the autistic person know which area of the house the animals are being kept in, such as the basement or a bedroom, so that the autistic person can go spend time with them. This may even double as a “designated recovery room” as mentioned in the point above.
Not only would this be helpful to the autistic person, your pets would greatly appreciate the company and it could lessen their own anxiety, as well.
7. Invite the Autistic Person to Tour the Space Ahead of Time, if Possible.
If the gathering is being held at your home and the autistic person is already familiar with the home, this obviously may not be necessary. If they have never been to your home before, however, invite them to come to the party a little earlier than it begins. There will be less people and noise at that time and the autistic person can familiarize themselves with where everything (including a “designated recovery room”) is.
But if there is a family function being held in a larger public space that is being rented out, or someplace like a restaurant, encourage the autistic to visit the public space ahead of time, or at least try to provide them with the website for the space so that they can scope it out beforehand.
8. If You Can, Provide a Structured Activity.
Have one room of your party space dedicated to a quiet structured activity, like building a puzzle, playing chess, or a board game.
These provide opportunities for socializing that does not involve the unspoken neurotypical social rules so many autistic people have difficulties with. The rules of engagement are known and clearly set forth in games, and are generally easy to learn and grasp.
Not only does doing so provide opportunities for an autistic person to engage socially in ways that are accessible to them, it provides variety at your party and prevents guests from becoming bored. It also helps to spread people out throughout your home, which leads me to recommendation #9:
9. Try to Space Guests Out Throughout Your Home or Party Space.
This entire blog post is written, actually, under the assumption that either these holiday parties are taking place with individuals who have been vaccinated for Covid-19, or within family groups who already live in the same homes.
Some parties may indeed include individuals who are not vaccinated (as some individuals are unable to because of certain health conditions, and others are unwilling to) So, spacing out guests in the party space isn’t a bad idea in and of itself, especially considering that in much of the country, it is too cold to hold events outdoors.
But even with the pandemic notwithstanding, creating opportunities in your party for an even distribution of guests will be advantageous, and not just to the autistic person who is likely to feel crowded and overwhelmed in cramped spaces, but to the atmosphere of your party, in general.
Creating designated areas like a refreshment table, a game room, a space for being seated and having conversations, etc., allows for guests to not be lumped together in oppressive crowds, and this is a win for everyone. It also allows the autistic person to choose which area of the party feels the best to them.
And, finally, #10 in our list of recommended accommodations for autistic people this holiday season:
10. Be Okay With an Early Departure.
Even if you do all of the above, the autistic person may still need to leave the party before it is over. If they do, it does not mean that your accommodations weren’t enough. Your accommodations may have made the difference between the autistic person being able to attend or not being able to attend at all.
Bear in mind that overstimulation is often a cumulative thing, and even if you are creating a very accessible party, the autistic person coming into it may already have a “stimulation bucket” that is nearly full. What’s a “stimulation bucket”? It’s merely a way to understand the amount of sensory stimulation an autistic person can tolerate before the bucket “overflows,” often in the form of an autistic meltdown.
The autistic person may arrive with a nearly full stimulation bucket, through the fault of no one, and only be able to take a small amount of stimulation before reaching their limit. Even the act of getting ready for and arrived to the party can produce such anxiety as to deplete the autistic person of the ability to receive much stimulation before needing to leave, especially if the autistic person has a unique “profile” of autism, called Pathological Demand Avoidance, as I do.
Take any length of time the autistic person is able to spend at your gathering as a win. Don’t make them feel ashamed for leaving early and don’t make them even explain why they have to leave, especially since if they are already at the threshold for how much stimulation they can tolerate, having to have a stressful social interaction on top of it may be too much for them. Establish, if you can, with the autistic person beforehand that whenever they need to leave, they can just tell you, “I am leaving now.”
Though I have written much on these accommodations, most of these can be accomplished with just a few conversations and a few minor tweaks and preparations before the party begins. These are simple, but effective ways to show the autistic people in your life that you desire and respect their presence at your holiday celebrations.