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  • Writer's pictureCircles of Communication

Understanding Neurodivergence and Holidays

It’s the holiday season! Often an exciting, happy time, the holidays can also bring up a variety of challenges for neurotypical and neurodivergent folks alike, whether these challenges be communicative, sensory, or emotional in nature. This month’s blog post offers insight into reasons some may love the holidays and others may feel discomfort in an effort to continue to foster mutual understanding across opinions and neurotypes. We also offer a few suggestions for how to create a more neurodiversity-affirming holiday experience!

As a reminder, neurodiversity is the idea that brain differences, such as ADHD, autism, or learning differences, are all natural variations in a wide array of human brains. The neurodiversity paradigm advocates for acceptance of all ways of thinking, learning, and interacting with the world and rejects the idea that differences are pathological in nature. There are lots of ways to honor and respect individual communication and processing needs throughout the holiday season.

The information provided below is merely a glimpse into a variety of potential excitements and challenges that arise during the holiday season for neurodivergent people.

There are many reasons that neurodivergent individuals might really enjoy the holidays! Those include:

  • Extra time with loved ones

  • Ample gatherings that provide opportunity to talk about special interests with others

  • Holiday traditions that are predictable and fun

  • Hearing the same music each year

  • Lights, smells, and sounds

  • Receiving presents related to their special interests

  • Familiarity with characters, like Santa, Rudolph, Grinch, etc.

  • Time off from school and regular routines, which may be restorative for some

On the flip side, there are also many reasons that neurodivergent folks might dislike the holidays, and you may be surprised at the amount of overlap! Those reasons include:

  • Too many rules at holiday gatherings such as required hugs, using good manners, staying at the table for the entire meal, sitting still, etc.

  • Holiday foods that are different from preferred same foods

  • Sensory overwhelm due to lights, smells, sounds, etc.

  • Exhaustion from extra social interaction and navigating social norms

  • Unpredictable schedule, break from routine

  • Challenging communication expectations related to small talk, giving and receiving gifts, being polite, etc.

  • Uncomfortable or restrictive holiday outfits such as itchy sweaters, matching pajamas, or hats and scarves

Fortunately, it’s easy to implement simple modifications that can help make your holiday more inclusive! If you are hosting a holiday gathering, consider dedicating one room in your home as a “holiday free zone” that can serve as a quiet, calming break area. We recommend having a variety of lighting options available in the room, ranging from bright to dim, and a place where guests can play music or white noise if they desire. To go a step further, consider placing a variety of sensory-supporting items in the room such as fidget or popper toys, a weighted blanket or pillow, and a comfortable place to sit or lounge.

Create a list of scheduled events and place it somewhere visible in your home. Go through the order of events often and review what might be expected at each event from a communication, sensory, and emotional perspective. For example, if your family is going for a visit with Santa, you might say something like this: “Today at 5:00pm we will go visit Santa. It will be dark out when we go. Some people like to sit on Santa’s lap and tell him what they want for Christmas. There might be bright lights and loud music, as well as lots of yummy treats to eat. Sometimes I feel excited, but other times it can make me feel tired or scared, and it’s ok to take a break. You can decide to sit on his lap if you want, but it’s also ok if you want to just watch or even stay in the car!”

If you are traveling somewhere for the holidays, allow your child to bring preferred foods, wear preferred clothes, and, if appropriate, practice kind ways they can let hosts know of their preferences. For example, you may model and practice saying something like, “Thank you so much for cooking for me but I feel most comfortable eating my favorite foods.” Additionally, be sure to bring items and toys that align with your child’s special interests! It provides them with an opportunity to take a break and engage with something they enjoy as needed, and also might spark conversation and engagement with interested party-goers!

Understanding that the holidays are overwhelming for both neurotypical and neurodivergent individuals alike, and validating and respecting everyone’s unique needs this holiday season is the simplest way to promote an inclusive celebratory month. If there is anything we can do to further support your child, we welcome a check-in call to discuss your specific ideas and questions about anything at all! We hope your month ahead is filled with festive gatherings, cookies by the fireplace, and laughs with loved ones as well as continued growth in learning, self-expression, and communication.

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