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Holiday Help for Neurodivergent Family, Friends, and Ourselves

Updated: Jan 8

It’s that time of year. Do you ever feel like we have eight months of steady, regular life, and then all of a sudden, we are thrust into a rollercoaster ride of much busier schedules, frantic decorating, baking, and cooking, fitting in gatherings and parties, plus shopping, shopping, and more shopping. It starts innocently enough with an extra day off in early September, and then suddenly boom—pumpkin-spiced everything, decorations everywhere months before the actual holiday, and trying to remember what time it is—if it’s 5:00 p.m., why is it so dark?! 


The holidays are a mixture of fun, joy, and a pinch of chaos. However, if you are neurodivergent, the holidays can cause frustration beyond the normal amount. From the sudden change in routine to the sensory overload to meeting and greeting more people than you saw all year—it can be incredibly overstimulating and overwhelming. This can lead to anxiety and depression. It can inspire feelings of wanting to participate but simultaneously wanting to hold up in the house until January 2. 


Here are some ways to slow down and enjoy the holidays if you are neurodivergent, have friends and family who are—or just need a cheerful reminder. 

Make Reasonable Expectations


For many, holiday frustration can stem from unrealistic expectations we put on ourselves and sometimes others. Whether we like it or not, the holidays can become “all the things, all the time” for two months. It’s imperative we set boundaries and realistic expectations for ourselves. Remind yourself—no one can bake all the things, plan all the things, attend all the things, buy all the things, and make everyone happy at the same time.


Communication is vital for realistic expectations. Be sensible about what you agree to and communicate what you can reasonably do. If too much is asked of you, say no or offer an alternative. On the flip side, be understanding if you are requesting the neurodivergent people in your life for things—what is obtainable for some may not be for others.


Along with that, social expectations can invoke a feeling that everyone must always be “on” and happy during the holidays. For many neurodivergent individuals, it can cause greater anxiety and fixating on the wrong things (usually bad outcomes). For neurodivergent folks, share what makes you anxious and explain your needs to trusted loved ones. Most people are understanding and will want to help you feel comfortable. 

Prepare for Sensory Overloads


Lights, lights, and lights! It’s the season of lights. It’s also the season of blasting holiday music, people everywhere, and new (hopefully delightful) smells—is that pie? This one falls into managing expectations, practicing self-care, and maintaining a schedule. 


When invited to an event, ask if there will be sensory overloads or look up the event if it is online. Many people now realize that lights and sounds can affect people adversely, so many events websites will detail this information. If you know something will be too overstimulating, you can decline the invite or ask if another part of the event will have less “stuff.” You can also prepare yourself and know you may need to take breaks. If you are comfortable, let the people you are with know about your sensitivities. 


Finally, mark gatherings and events that will be stimulating in your calendar. This way, you can keep an eye on what types of events you have scheduled. There is no shame in opting out or making a plan if you need to leave early. You are taking care of yourself, and that is essential.

Make Inclusive Activities for Neurodivergent People


If you have neurodivergent friends and family, you can involve them in ways they will be comfortable. For instance, did you know excessive drinking can be problematic for people with dyspraxia? They often struggle with coordination, which can get worse with alcohol intake. For other neurodivergent individuals, they may feel pressure to drink to feel “normal” or “social.” If you have neurodivergent family and friends, provide fun, non-alcoholic drinks as an alternative. It's as easy as asking the neurodivergent people in your life if they’d like to share preferences or aversions. 


Here are some quick tips to make them feel included but not overwhelmed. 


Do:

  • Create time to have individual conversations when at parties.

  • Invite them for 1:1 time (grab hot cocoa) or small gatherings with people they know. 

  • Send invites well in advance and make it clear attendance is optional.

  • Ask them for their opinion or if they have anything you need to know to make it a better experience for them.

  • Be patient and kind.

But Don’t:

  • Force conversation. Some people need to decompress and be silent to gather their thoughts.

  • Put pressure on them that they or the situation must be perfect.

  • Call out their condition, let them inform who they want.

  • Assume people are flaky, weird, or anti-social. Some of your friends might be neurodivergent and just don’t want people to know. Refer to the “do” list and remind yourself—“be patient and kind.”

Practice Self-Care


While the holidays are about time with others, you still must put yourself first. Spend time with those who make you feel loved and appreciated. You don’t need to accept invitations to spend time with people who make you feel anxious or uncomfortable. If you prefer not to participate, don’t be hard on yourself. There is too much pressure to be around everyone all the time during the holidays, but it’s fine to be alone, too. 


Don’t go over your budget. Financial self-care is part of your mental health. Make sure you plan for all supplementary spending, including shipping, increased grocery amounts, and presents of course. Try to buy gifts in advance, as studies show people who wait until the last minute tend to go over budget.


It’s always important to ensure your well-being, but we can forget about ourselves during this time of year. Only we can advocate for ourselves and clarify what we need to make our holiday the best for us. (Remember, it's your holiday season too.)

Plan for Routine Changes


Plan for change. Impossible, right? Not always. While it is not realistic to plan for the unexpected, you can begin to prepare for the expected changes. On top of this, which ties into expectations, many of these changes are full of holiday cheer. Kids are out of school. People are taking off work. The aforementioned parties and family gatherings are being scheduled. And all the invites to the events, shopping dates, social hours, cookie exchanges, and well, you get the picture are flowing in.


Many feel obligated to attend everything, but take a step back, prioritize, and don't overwhelm yourself. Scheduling is key to emotional regulation. Schedule as much of your holiday plans in advance. Don’t wait until the day of to orchestrate the details. For instance, if you know traffic will be heavy to get to that party, mark travel time off in your schedule when you initially put it in. This little detail will alleviate last-minute “oh-no’s.”


Visual planning apps like THRIVE are great ways to plan in advance. You can use the calendar, notifications, and messaging to keep all your details in one convenient place. It also features self-regulation tools, so you can practice finding your joy when the holiday stresses come caroling. So schedule that party, block time for wrapping gifts, and remind yourself to make those cookies. 


Most importantly, have fun and enjoy. There is no such thing as perfect, so try to reset your thinking around outcomes. Remind yourself of what matters the most. It’s never the perfect present or a spectacular dish—it’s the family and friends you share that with. 


Thrive for Android, Apple

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