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Managing the Holidays for Neurodivergent Kids

Recently, we discussed how to navigate the holidays for neurodivergent family and friends, but here, we want to specifically address the needs of neurodiverse children. The holidays can be especially exciting for children, but it can also be confusing, overwhelming, and frustrating, especially for neurodiverse children.

The holidays bring gifts, vacation, and a smidgen of mystery. They also bring changes in routine, sensory overload, and an increase in encounters with people, both familiar and not. No matter what neurodiverse condition your child has, there are ways to help ease their minds, prepare for what’s coming, and make them feel included.

Holiday Priorities

First, figure out your family priorities, keeping your child’s/children’s needs in mind. It helps to think about what the holidays mean to you, your immediate family, extended family, and your friends. Once you have what matters most to you and your family, you can begin to prioritize how to handle the extra stress of the holiday.

Common areas to consider when thinking about what matters the most to you and your family during the holidays:

  • Spending quality time with loved ones.

  • Practicing religious and spiritual customs associated with your faith and beliefs.

  • Gathering with friends and family over a special meal.

  • Celebrating with others at holiday events.

  • Partaking in yearly traditions that make you feel connected to your family/community.

  • Participating in giving back to the community through volunteer work, fundraisers, etc.

  • Shopping and finding the right gifts for people you love.

Prepare, Plan, Discuss, Enjoy

Communication is Key

As any parent knows, having a steadfast routine is vital for their neurodivergent kids. And, the holidays can be nothing but changes to routine. These changes, along with sensory overload, can cause overstimulation which can lead to heightened anxiety and breakdowns. If you have multiple events, talk about each one separately. You know your child best, so you may need to space these apart.

Talk to your child about upcoming plans ahead of time and more than once. Explain to them using wording like, “This is what will happen here,” and use visual aids as needed to help them understand. If you know details, you can go step by step, “When we get there you’ll see grandma and her dog Pepper. You’ll also see your Aunts and Uncles and cousins. And if they really like certain people, that can help them become excited and less frightened. We’ll eat a big dinner and open presents.” You may not know all these details but painting a picture can set their mind at ease. It’s also a great time to practice the “First-Then” strategy. For instance, when helping them to understand the flow of events you can say, first dinner then dessert.

Plan to Decompress

Overstimulation can be easy during the holidays. Lights, sounds, smells, and a lot of new people add to stress—and that can be hard on anyone. Now imagine that your brain is especially susceptible to those.

Decide on an exit strategy in advance, as well as a decompression/recovery plan, and discuss this with your child ahead of time. Your child will be more comfortable and confident if they know a plan is in place. Look for signs that your child is becoming overwhelmed and initiate the recovery plan as early as possible.

Have resources available to allow your child to emotionally regulate. You can bring a bag with items you know help them feel safe and relaxed. You can also prepare your home in advance, ensuring there is a calming space for your child when you arrive. If you are at a hotel, scan the property in advance for a relaxing area or make a space in your room that your child knows is for them.

Allow your child to tell you what they need. While we want to protect our children, it’s also important for them to use their coping skills. If you are stressed, they will become stressed, so allow them to use the tools they need to feel comfortable, as they need them.

Prepare Others

Your child’s best interest is also important to your friends and family. Don’t assume loved ones understand your child’s condition, even if you’ve explained it to them. Unfortunately, some people don’t understand neurodivergence, remind them that your child’s behavior is not a reflection of being good or bad. It’s a condition and they just have different needs.

If going to a family/friend gathering, alert the hosts of your situation. They may be able to create a safe space for your child to regulate. If not, it will help them understand if you need to leave quickly.

Don’t let others shame you. If your child needs a phone or tablet to feel comfortable, that is your right as a parent. Remember that almost no child acts perfectly all the time, honestly, that’s true for adults too. And while we know it’s hard for some people, try to not worry as much about what others think. As Dr. Suess one said, “Be who you are and say what you feel because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.”


Use visual aids like calendars and schedules to help your child better understand their changes in routine and get a sense of the type of events. Visual planning is found to be extremely effective for people with neurodivergent conditions. In fact, 65% of all people, neurodivergent or not, do better with visual learning.

If you child is young, under around 6 (but depends on your child’s unique abilities) you can use visual cards to help them comprehend and communicate. For older children, you can use a visual planning app like THRIVE. Because THRIVE is collaborative, you can help your child with their scheduling, managing their calendar, and setting up notifications. As an added bonus, it contains a messaging feature, so you can communicate directly with your child, and any designated caregivers,keeping everything in one convenient place. Finally, and what really sets it apart, is it has self-regulation tools. THRIVE is a wonderful way to build your child's confidence and help them gain independence. Thrive for Android, Apple


  • Talk to your child in advance about the changes to their routine.

  • Verbally paint the picture of different events to ease their mind.

  • Remind them of their favorite people who will be at an event.

  • Prepare an exit strategy.

  • Plan how to help your child decompress

  • Talk to loved ones ahead of time about your child’s needs.

  • Don’t be afraid to tell friends and family “no” if they are doing something that will bother your child.

  • Use visual planning to help your child understand upcoming changes, take control of their schedule, and build confidence.

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