The writers at Respectfully Connected have collaborated to bring you this post – our tips, survival strategies and family traditions to ensure that the Festive Season is a great one for our neurodivergent families.
Our family is neurodiverse, with a variety of needs and desires about how to spend the holiday season, so for us this time of year involves a careful dance of participating and boundary drawing.
As an autistic parent with an autistic child, I have to be proactive about limiting the number and duration of social activities, without apologizing or feeling guilty for doing so. I remind myself that we will all have a better time, including our neurotypical loved ones, if we are not stressed out and anxious. We choose to keep the traditions that are enjoyable for us and reject that ones that are not.
Our holidays are generally very low key. With our neurodivergent family, we all have different needs at different times so I do try my best to accommodate that. There have been years that we have not had a Christmas tree. We host a holiday meal with a few dear friends and our children are free to be themselves, running around, eating how and when and even if they choose to. There’s no pressure from anyone for any of the children to behave in a certain way and it is my favorite holiday gathering.
If we are attending a celebration at someone else’s house, we always either bring our own food or order carry out from a favorite restaurant. I have gained a lot of confidence over the years to do what needs to be done to meet the needs of my family during the holidays. We leave when we’ve had enough, we eat what and when we want, and are free to be our true selves.
We hide out over the holiday season. Batten down the hatches and retreat. We don’t see family, we don’t attend any events and we don’t leave the house on Christmas day. It’s delicious. Instead, we decorate the house on Christmas eve, which usually involves building a big Thomas the Tank Engine railway, complete with Christmas lights and fake snow made from cotton balls.
We don’t much like surprises, so we know in advance what our gifts are. We usually have a nice picnic lunch on the lounge room floor and hang out together watching movies and building Lego. Our low sensory Christmas is perfect for meeting our needs.
And we don’t do that Santa guy. He creeps us all out.
The festive season is a barrage of busyness, colours, rushing and huge expectations. The social side can be filled with obligatory must-sees. I make sure that I plan space and set whole days aside for our recovery.
To meet our families needs I aim to only do whatever activity is enjoyable for us and be prepared to cut things short if someone is overwhelmed. We are prepared with an iPad this year. This will allow both my children to have something to escape to when it gets too much.
I have worded up both families that we are just staying and doing whatever the kids are comfortable with. I want them to enjoy the time with friends and family and every year I learn something that works and something I will be more mindful of in the future.
The festive season is a time of year when everyone talks about the importance of family, but my family growing up was not a family. Now, I have my own family of two.
We have built our own traditions: we bake a lot; on Christmas Eve, we get new PJs and watch a DVD together; on New Years’ Eve, we pack a picnic and go and find a secluded spot from where we can watch the fireworks without being among the crowds. We do quiet things over the festive season, and that works for us. It’s still a time of family.
We are in the process of reducing the impact Christmas has on our lives. It has caused so much stress over the years as we try to meet external expectations. This year we are not attending any extended family gatherings, and are having just a small meal at home. For gifts every family member writes a few things on a “wish list” and we each draw one from a hat, then choose things up to a set value to gift the person whose list we have. No surprises, no sensory overload, no food anxiety, less spending, less stress.
Presents can be overwhelming for our family – not just because of the sensory explosion, but because of expectations people can have about how the giftee should react. We have very strong boundaries around providing space for our children to respond to gifts in ways that are comfortable for them. Sometimes that means a child needs a quieter space to open presents slowly and inspect each present as they go. Sometimes it looks like a gift is being ignored or isn’t appreciated (although usually 20 minutes later it is well explored and being incorporated into new games). Our friends and family have accepted this, even when a child’s reaction has not been what they expected, which makes the sharing of gifts much easier on everyone.
On the Train with Sophie:
Christmas is a low-key affair for us. Nobody is forced to do anything they don’t feel like doing. That being said, my fourth one is a big Santa fan and actually asked to go meet him and sit on his lap so we will do that for him. We go visit grandparents during the season where we eat and hang out. Overall we make Christmas be a relaxing time for our family, not a source of stress or anxiety. If something seems like it wouldn’t work for us we just don’t do it, plain and simple.
Once upon a time there was a family with two mummies and three children. Every year they had Christmas lunch with their extended family. It was noisy and hot, with new people to ‘chat’ with, new food, and surprise presents. This little family of five took weeks to recover, and felt like Scrooges for hating Christmas Day.
Then one day a Christmas miracle happened and they discovered they were all autistic. They asked Santa to bring them LESS for Christmas: less noise, less smells, no new people, no surprise presents and no new foods.
From that year on, they had a small adventure to stay at their grandparents on Christmas Eve. Each year on Christmas Day they wake to open presents the children chose for themselves, have breakfast and head home for a quiet day of play.
They all lived happily ever after.