Neurodivergence and Navigating Holiday Season

Holiday season can be really demanding. Lots of events to attend that are noisy, bright and crowded. In Australia, the Christmas season is at the end of our school year, which is also a stressful time as school classes are out of routine, everyone is tired, and the weather is heating up. For homeschooling families the holiday period means that there are more families out and about and that their favourite places to go are often more crowded than usual. 

Over the years we have learned some strategies in our multiply neurodivergent family that help us all during the holiday season. So this post is all about telling you the strategies we use to navigate the challenges of holiday season events, in the hopes that some of the things we find work will be helpful for you too.

Strategy 1:  Say no to stuff

There is a lot on at this time of year. You do not have to do it all. If an event is something you know you or your child will not enjoy, it can’t be adapted to help accommodate yours or your child’s needs or if it presents safety concerns- say no and don’t go. 

Strategy 2: Make your needs clear to those you will be spending time with

There is no need to apologise for this to your host or tread softly when telling them what you and your children need to be present and enjoy your time there. Everyone has a right to have their needs met, even if a little more effort is required for some than others. For us, one thing that really helps is to have all the essential activities of the visit over with early on in the event, so that if we need to go we can and we won’t have missed out on things. In practical terms for our family this meant that when we went to my parents place for a Christmas celebration we asked to have the main meal served immediately when we arrived and the presents to be opened straight after that.  Those two things done early in the visit meant that we were free to go whenever we needed to. 

Strategy 3: Ask your host for a schedule of what will be happening so you know what to expect

A lot of the anxiety my kids and I feel about going to events is not knowing what to expect. If we know what to expect and are familiar with the venue a large part of the stress is removed. It also serves to help me know when I need to be most available to support my kids because I have advance warning of when things are likely to be loud or busy or otherwise challenging. 

Strategy 4: Set up a designated quiet place at the venue 

This needn’t be a big deal. A quiet corner in a bedroom is often enough, as long as the people who need it will be comfortable there and as long as others know that if someone is there it means they need some time alone and should not be disturbed. Make sure you show your child where it is and tell them they can go there if they need to be alone. Doing this has helped my daughter attend events meltdown free, event though they were things she would usually find overwhelming. At one of those there was no room available for a quiet spot, but we took a very small pop up play tent and set it up for her in a quiet-ish corner of her choosing and it was enough- she could go in there and no one could see her and she couldn’t see them. She used it a few times through out the evening and avoided becoming overwhelmed by deciding for herself when and for how long she spent time in there. 

Strategy 5: Bring a favourite soothing item, favourite food and assistive technology 

For us, this is often the iPad. Sometimes it is a fidget toy. Very occasionally it is a soft toy or a plastic dinosaur or horse. Whatever works. If your child has an item with them they find soothing and distracting it can help them re-center when they feel stressed. It can also be a good idea to bring some of your childs favourite foods. Trying new food can be stressful, so having something familiar to eat can reduce stress. When my daughter was younger I took her favourite crackers, dip and cheese everywhere with us so she would always have something to eat. We also found that chewing really crunchy foods and sipping through a straw helped relieve anxiety for her. We also make sure we take our noise cancelling headphones to events so we can’t them on if we need to reduce the amount stimulus we experience but can’t actually get far enough away from it all.

Strategy 6:Leave “early” if you need to

My kids have some definite “tells” that they have had enough. I bet your kids do too. My experience is that if someone has had enough, they find it more difficult to cope with stressors and that is pretty obvious in the way they respond to them. For a neurodivergent person “enough” can happen sooner than for a neurotypical person, simply because of the work they are doing to process the sensory input and social interactions. And that is OK. If you’ve had enough in a social situation you remove yourself from it, right? So, do that for your kids too. If you can see they’ve had enough, leave. Take them home, let them relax. If it is impossible to leave immediately, make a plan to leave, tell your child what the plan is and stick to it. Let them stay in their designated quiet place until you can leave if that helps them. It’s important to make sure your child knows they can tell you they need to leave at any time and that you will listen and act to support them.
Sometimes it is me that has had enough, but the kids aren’t quite ready to leave. When this happens I let them know we will be leaving soon and that they need to finish up what they are doing, and if I need to I enlist help from others there to deal with my feeling of overwhelm and to help get the kids organised to go. Sometimes my husband recognises my tells before I do and he asks me if I need to go. Sometimes I see his and ask him if he needs to go. It is good to acknowledge that it is not only children who are neurodivergent and have support needs in social situations. We try to go with the flow as much as we can, and recognise that our needs are as important as the kids. 

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