Holiday Resilience: Creating Space for Neurodivergent Joy

By: Louis Chesney
Woman looking at phone wearing Santa hat at office holiday party

These last few months of the year are packed full of holidays, celebrations, traditions, and social gatherings for which many await with excited anticipation. But for some individuals, this season creates unnecessary stressors, expectations, and situations that hamper their ability to fully participate in this joyous time. Neurodivergent adults account for up to 33 percent of our global population, so why is it that we don’t discuss the accommodations and modifications that can allow neurodiverse individuals to participate during the holidays in a way that doesn’t require them to demonstrate resilience?

Read on for two sections of strategies that neurodivergent adults can use to create space in the time they share with family and friends this celebratory season to experience holiday joy equitably.

Gatherings

Large gatherings with guest lists including rarely seen family and loosely known acquaintances might as well be synonymous with the holiday season. These get-togethers (and even smaller ones, too) can be extra stressful for neurodivergent adults for a wide variety of reasons, often including sensory overload, loss of control, and social burnout.

Here are some “go-to’s” you can try next time you have a social engagement on your calendar:

Set Sensory Boundaries and Stick To Them

Know whether a room is too full, too scented, or too loud for you to be comfortable in. Permit yourself to find another place to socialize and consider inviting an individual or smaller group to join you there. Remember that you don’t owe anyone explanations for these choices. However, if you choose to communicate your preferences verbally; use powerful and confidant language, like “I’m going to sit in the living room because I’m more comfortable with the noise level there. Feel free to join me for a chat!”

You could also consider bringing sensory aids to help raise your tolerance in potentially overwhelming situations if you’ve found them helpful before such as:

  • Ear defenders (headphones)
  • Sunglasses
  • Stimming objects

Coordinate with Host of Gathering

Coordinate with the host of your gathering (assuming it’s not you!) to arrange accommodations that might help you feel more comfortable and in control during the event:

  • Ask your host for a quick run-down of the plan (ex. snacks and games in the living room, then dinner in the dining room)
  • Consider requesting a 5–10-minute warning before the gathering moves from one phase to another so that you have time to prepare
  • If you benefit from having a separate, quieter space to calm and center yourself in, ask your host if one can be set aside for your use in case you feel overwhelmed
  • Practice some activities for yourself to rely on during that reset time

Having a routine meditation practice or breathing technique to center yourself with can go a long way towards reducing situational anxiety.

Rehearse Common Questions

Write or rehearse some scripted answers to commonly asked questions to feel less taxed in social exchanges. Examples might include:

  • How school or work is going
  • If you’re seeing anyone or still seeing someone
  • How other new developments in your life are coming along

Seasonal Stressors

Even when you take the whole business of gatherings out of the picture, the holiday season is still thoroughly peppered with stressful norms, traditions, and expectations. Among them are:

  • Decorating
  • Disrupted daily routines
  • Lack of understanding from friends and family on your unique (not wrong!) neurodivergent viewpoint

Here are some suggestions for navigating the more challenging parts of the holidays that can’t be contained to one evening:

Incorporate Joy

Decide what parts of celebrating during this season bring you the most joy and find manageable ways to incorporate them into your life. Examples would include:

  • Less obtrusive and intentionally chosen decorations selected for your enjoyment
  • Gift-giving with specific agreed-upon people only
  • Baking holiday cookies for friends but forgoing a full hosted dinner

Plan Free Time When Loneliness is Expected

Individuals with Autism/Autistic individuals (and likely many other neurodiverse populations) are four times more likely to experience extreme loneliness during the holidays. Feelings of isolation or loneliness tend to creep up on us when we suddenly have a great deal of unstructured free time on our hands. If you have experienced these negative feelings previously around the holidays, consider building out a plan for the free time that you expect to have this season.

Know if your office will be closed for a week at Christmas or if classes will be out? Pick a day to:

  • Go to a skating rink
  • Have a coffee with a sensitive friend
  • Choose a park you would like to go to for a walk
  • Volunteer

Any plan can work if it is a dedicated use of your time that you know will bring you joy or comfort.

Be Open About How You Really Feel About Traditions

Tradition doesn’t deserve to dictate your celebratory style. Suppose if the façade of having to force excitement and accept gifts for which you did not ask causes you strain.

In that case, feel empowered to communicate to family/friends/coworkers/acquaintances that:

  • No, you genuinely don’t want anything (the “real gift” would be listening to your needs)
  • Wrapping paper (wasteful, loud!)
  • Unfamiliar family members seen once a year at gatherings (skip or don’t invite!)

Know that your thoughts and feelings on traditions that lack relevancy to you don’t require justification, even if they are considered “a-typical.”

Everyone Can Have a Joyous and Fulfilling Celebratory Season

Neurodiverse adults are practically guaranteed to face challenges and stressors that aren’t covered here, like travel. Therefore, we can do ourselves a huge favor by openly discussing these difficulties, sharing our best solutions to them, and pushing for more acceptance when it comes to people’s individual choices and comfort levels around the holidays.

Everyone—absolutely everyone—can have a joyous and fulfilling celebratory season. We only need to create room for equitable accommodations and modifications to include neurodiverse individuals in that joy. We hope you try out some of the tips and strategies provided here this year to help make it happen!

About the Author

Headshot of Louis Chesney from RethinkCare

Program Manager at RethinkCare

Louis Chesney is the Program Manager of Neurodiversity for RethinkCare, overseeing the day-to-day operations and expansion of RethinkCare’s neurodiversity course content and consultation approach. Before joining RethinkCare, Louis championed and led a hiring program for autistic adults at a global technology company. He continually aims to make a positive impact on those who are underserved. As an individual who experienced selective mutism first-hand, Louis inspires and actively contributes to the current work. He co-authored “ECHO: A Vocal Language Program for Easing Anxiety in Conversation,” a Plural Publishing book designed to help older children and teens needing social communication support.

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