When holiday seasons or big family events are coming up, there are inevitably family gatherings, which can be especially hard for autistic people. With the broken routine comes a flurry of overly affectionate family members, and situations and places that you may have had minimal experience with. A family gathering can be hard, but they’re more easily manageable if you find ways to accommodate yourself and lessen the stress of the environment.
EditPreparing for Attending
Get information about the gathering. Once you find out that there’s a family gathering going on, finding out the details about it will help you plan ahead for the next steps. Try to get as much basic information as possible, so that there will be minimal surprises when the gathering rolls around. It can also address any anxieties or concerns you may have. A good list of things to find out are:
What’s the gathering for?
Where will the gathering take place?
Who will be attending?
How long will it last? (Keep in mind that if the gathering is far away, you may end up having to stay somewhere overnight.)
Are you required to bring anything (food, gifts, etc.)?
Do you need to dress formally?
What will be some expectations? For instance, it may be expected to have polite conversation, or join in a family meal, take formal photos, and so on.
Will there be opportunity for breaks? If so, when and how will you know? Family gatherings can be a lot of sensory overload, and a drain. Having opportunities to take a break and take a walk, play with a pet, or some alone time may be available.
Are there any animals at the host’s house?
Assess the biggest problem you’ll most likely have with the gathering. Everybody is different, and a hyposensitive person will have different challenges than a hypersensitive person. Analyzing what your biggest challenge will be is important, since it’ll help you to find ways to handle the gathering and its events.
For example, if you prefer to communicate nonverbally, but you think that your family members will find it hard to understand what you need, you can solve that problem by considering AAC to find a way of making yourself understood. Or, if you think you’ll have trouble with not having flavorful enough food, ask if it’s possible for the hosts to set out spices that people can choose to add to their meals.
Noisy family members can be a drain on some autistic people. If your family members know that you’re autistic, consider asking them if they mind if you wear earplugs. If they don’t know you’re autistic or they aren’t okay with that, you’ll need to find another way of coping with the noise, which can be anything from stimming to taking a break from the situation.
Not everything goes according to plan all the time. Things can happen that you may not be prepared for. Do not spend your time trying to come up with every situation imaginable – you’ll stress yourself out “what-if”ing. Instead, come up with the likely scenarios, as well as a few “unlikely, but still possible” ones.
Have others help. Sometimes you may need to have people who know you well to help intervene. There is nothing wrong with this. You may well be among people who may love you, but not fully understand you or your needs. Having a trusted person able to help advocate for you, navigate the social scene and come up with creative solutions is a great idea.
Plan some conversation topics. It’s normal for people to catch up with each other during a gathering, so you may be telling them about what you’ve been up to, and you can ask them about what they’re doing.
Think of a few different things that have happened to you lately that you’d like to talk about.
Remember their interests. It is expected to strike up conversations at a family gathering, so if this is something you can do, be prepared for this expectation. It does not have to be long or involved, but a polite conversation will go a long way.
For example, if you remember that Cousin Jenny loves chemistry and Uncle Phil likes fishing, you can ask them questions about these topics.
Think of questions you can ask, like “How was your summer?” or “What have you been up to lately?”
Be aware that you may be asked to answer questions about your interests and activities.
Autistic individuals often have very deep focuses on certain topics. Be aware that you will likely need to keep your conversation about these to a manageable level with people who are not so interested. You may be lucky if there is a cousin who loves going on for hours and hours about your favorite Pokémon, but it’s likely to be boring – or even annoying – for everyone else.
Create a timetable of events. A good way of preparing yourself for the gathering is to create a timetable or a “schedule” of what will happen during the gathering. By visualizing what will happen and preparing yourself for the course of events, the break in routine won’t seem as daunting anymore, since you’ll know what will happen and can prepare yourself adequately for it.
Try following the timetable prior to the gathering, even if you can’t make your surroundings emulate the actual gathering. This will help you adjust and make the break in routine a little less jarring.
Understand that plans can change, and in social situations things are sometimes in flux. These timetables are subject to change. Unexpected problems like bad weather can change when travel happens, for instance. Or some people decide spontaneously to go for a walk.
Think about where you can go if you need a break. Since a family gathering can get loud and possibly overwhelming at times, having a quiet place to go is a necessity. Oftentimes, places like bedrooms are off-limits during family gatherings, but bathrooms are accessible, and small out-of-the-way areas like unoccupied hallways (or even closets) can serve as a quiet place for you to go if you need to get away from the chaos.
If you don’t know the setup of the gathering’s location, try to get other family members to map out the place, if possible.
Contacting the host beforehand (described in-detail in a later step) can make it easier to find a place to go.
Talk to other family members. You might not know much about the family gathering or where it’s being held, be anxious about going, or have concerns about other aspects of the trip, such as travel or dealing with annoying family members. Communicating with other family members about the gathering and its upcoming events can ease your mind a bit, and allow you to ask for advice, if you need any.
If you have other autistic family members, talk with them, too. See if they have suggestions or knowledge that would help you to handle the gathering. Just be aware that every autistic person is different, so what works for them may not work for you.
Know what coping mechanisms you can use. You can’t hide in another room for the entire gathering; otherwise, there’d be little point in even going to the gathering. Using coping mechanisms is one of the strategies that will allow you to tolerate the gathering. If you’ve developed a collection of stims and other coping mechanisms, great! If not, try looking online for advice from other autistics on how to cope, using sites such as RealSocialSkills.
Common coping mechanisms for neurotypicals involve deep breathing, meditating, journaling in a quiet area, or focusing on something specific (such as a certain type of sensory input). You can try combining these with coping mechanisms that you know work for you (such as rocking in a rocking chair or deeply focusing on a special interest).
Can you bring things that will block out sensory input? (For example, bringing earplugs or a pair of noise-canceling headphones to block out noise, or taking sunglasses to block out light.)
Can you stim? If so, what stims will be appropriate for the time and area?
Can you bring food that you know won’t trigger sensory issues? (If you can’t bring it, see if it’s possible to make it at the gathering location.)
Pick out gifts, if necessary. Gift giving follows an elaborate, confusing protocol that is problematic for many autistics. However, many family gatherings include this ritual. If you find yourself in doubt about what a family member would like, try getting them something you know they’d need (like a new blanket if you know their old one is tattered) or something that allows them to pick their gift themselves, like a gift card. For example, you could give them things like winter clothing or gift cards, or things that they’ve specifically requested as gifts, as long as you can afford them.
Focus less on giving “age-appropriate” gifts, and more on what the person would actually enjoy. Things like stuffed animals and games may not seem “age-appropriate” for an adult, but if you know that an older family member likes those things, it’s perfectly fine to give it to them.
That being said, avoid giving a young family member something that’s outright inappropriate (for example, containing profanity, sexual content, or other questionable material).
Also, “age appropriate” is still a good guideline. What is appropriate for your 5 year old cousin and your grandfather will probably be quite different.
You don’t need to spend all of your money on someone; if they want something that you really can’t afford, you don’t need to feel obligated to buy it for them.
“Going in” with one or more other gift givers can be a great tactic. Pooling your money to buy a more expensive gift also takes some of the responsibility to pick out a gift off you.
Try to contact the host of the gathering. Communicating with the host can make it easier to handle the gathering if they know what you may need beforehand. Explain to them your needs, and try to compromise on accommodations that could be made for you. You might be surprised with how willing they are to make sure that you can enjoy the gathering!
If this accommodation could help other family members, too, then consider extending it to them as well. For example, you could ask the host, “Would it be possible for us to set aside an area that people could go when they want some quiet?”, or “Can I bring cornbread for everyone at the meal?” If you don’t think you’ll be able to handle extending your accommodations to others, though, don’t ask.
Disclosing whether or not you’re autistic is a personal choice, if they aren’t already aware. If you’re worried about your disability being misunderstood, you can choose to describe your autistic traits without ever saying that you’re autistic.
If there will be gift exchanges at the gathering and you’ll be receiving gifts, tell them something that you’d like as a gift, too. This will make it less likely that you end up with a gift that you dislike or can’t tolerate.
EditGoing on the Trip
A long trip to the family gathering can be just as draining as the gathering itself. Having ways to make the trip manageable is important.
Prepare beforehand. Rushing to get everything done right before the trip is a bad idea for multiple reasons – you’re likely to forget things, get overwhelmed by how hectic it is, and end up miserable on the actual trip. Create a schedule for what you need to do and when you need to get it done, and try to accomplish things at early as possible. If it’s done early, you don’t have to worry about it afterwards.
Establish and confirm transport plans, lodging plans, finances and budgets, and any plans for meeting up with family as soon as possible. Be sure to also arrange plans for things going on at home, if necessary (for example, if you have pets, who will take care of your pets while you’re away), and plans for the trip back home.
If you need luggage, pack it at least two days before the trip. If you rush packing on the day of the trip, you’re very likely to forget something important.
Wear comfortable clothing. Many neurotypicals dress for comfort when going on longer trips, and as an autistic person, this is even more important to reduce the risk of sensory overload. Pick out and wear soft clothing that you know you’d be comfortable in for extended periods of time, such as cotton clothes, hoodies, or possibly sweatpants. Avoid stiff, formal clothing.
Take the trip as an excuse to kick off your shoes. If shoes are uncomfortable, well, you’ll be sitting in a car or plane, right? You don’t need to wear them if you’re not walking around!
If you have sensory problems that cause clothing to be uncomfortable, avoid clothing that will cause you distress, even if the trip is short. Avoid clothing with tags, clothes that rumple, or clothes made of any material that you don’t like.
Have things to occupy yourself during the trip. If you’re a passenger on a trip to the gathering, you likely don’t want to be staring out the window of a car or plane for the entire ride. Having options that don’t involve talking to others are important, especially if social interaction will wear you down quickly.
You can bring things like novels, coloring books, puzzle books (such as Sudoku), or electronics to keep yourself busy. Keep these, as well as stim toys, easily accessible.
If you’re taking a laptop, phone, or tablet, you can download videos or games onto it beforehand. Start downloading them early in case the download takes awhile. Be sure to charge these devices, too.
Bring snacks and drinks for a long trip.
Keep sensory needs in mind. Most trips require sitting in a moving vehicle of some sort for extended periods of time, which can have its drawbacks on both hypersensitive and hyposensitive autistic people – a hypersensitive person may become motion sick, while a hyposensitive person may not have enough stimulation and start getting bored. Find ways to accommodate your sensory needs so that the trip can be less of a struggle for you.
If you’re hypersensitive, find ways to avoid carsickness or airsickness, and ways to keep yourself from getting dizzy during the trip. Bring earplugs or headphones if going on a plane trip to block out the sound of the plane’s engines – or if you’re just going on a trip with potentially noisy passengers.
If you’re hyposensitive, bring things that will fulfill your sensory needs, which can be anything from stim toys to electronics.
Be respectful of other passengers. Wear headphones when listening to music or other sounds, don’t bring bright or flashing devices, and avoid humming loudly or stimming in ways that invades their personal space. And respect their space – don’t reach into someone’s personal space, and don’t kick someone’s seat!
Try to avoid driving. Driving requires a lot of focus on several different things at once, and it can be very draining, especially if you’ll be driving for several hours. While driving may not be completely avoidable, if somebody else can drive, ask them to do so, in order to save your energy for the gathering.
If you do have to drive, take breaks when you need them to avoid overloading yourself or getting tired in the car.
Plan accordingly for air travel. Plane rides are noisy and can be quite stressful, which makes it important to take steps to negate the stressors. Wearing headphones during the plane ride can work if you’re sensitive to noise, but there’s more to air travel than just the flight; you’ll need to prepare yourself for getting through the airport (which can be quite hectic during holiday seasons) and for wait times, as well as the new sensory input. Keeping your sensory needs regulated and stimming is crucial to getting through the airport, but there are ways to make screening easier, too.
Consider wearing a medical bracelet or ID so that you don’t need to explain everything to security officers, and script a quick explanation such as, “I’m autistic and need to be told before somebody touches me”.
If you alert the security officers at the TSA that you’re autistic/disabled, you can discuss with them ways to make the screening process easier, and you will not be separated from anyone that you may be traveling with. You can also use the special needs line.
If you’re part of TSA Pre-Check, you will have access to a shorter line, and you will also not be required to remove your shoes, belts, or light jackets, nor laptops or liquids, from you or your bag. (However, it can take some time to be able to get access to Pre-Check lines.)
Prepare yourself for the possibility of additional screening. People are randomly selected for additional screening, and there’s a possibility that you may get picked out to undergo the screening. It’s important to communicate your needs to TSA staff so that they know and can do what they can to help you through the screening process.
Prepare for the time you’ll need to spend at the airport, too, especially if you’ll need to deal with long layovers. Delays at the airport are also common; be sure to have things to occupy yourself in the case of a delay.
Make sure you’ll be able to eat. If you get hungry, you may get stressed and more prone to sensory overload, shutdowns, and meltdowns. Ensure that you’ll have time to eat while travelling. It may help to pack some snacks in case you can’t get to a restaurant when you’re hungry.
Leave early. You don’t want to be rushing to get to the gathering in time; this is likely to stress you out and will give you no time to unwind from the trip afterwards. Leaving early allows you to take more time to get there, and is actually recommended for plane trips since airport security can take quite some time. Allocating extra time for breaks during the trip is only possible if you have the time!
EditAttending the Gathering
Relax as much as you can on the evening and morning before the gathering. This will help you be at your best later on. Try taking a warm shower or bath, engaging your special interests, reading a good book, swinging and doing other sensory-friendly activities, and doing other things that you enjoy. Pamper yourself, rest, and have some fun, so that you feel relaxed and positive.
Choose clothing that you’re comfortable in within appropriate boundaries. The typical “fancy” or “dressy” attire that’s common at many holiday gatherings can cause a lot of distress for autistic people with sensory issues. However, many families prefer that people dress “nicely” for family gatherings, which can make clothing choices difficult. If you can talk to the host ahead of time about attire, do so; if not, pick out clothing that you can wear comfortably.
Don’t wear clothes with stains or rips, or clothing that’s dirty. It’s generally not considered socially acceptable.
Check with your host on what would be appropriate. Formal clothing may not always be necessary. Some families may open Christmas presents in pajamas, so it is OK to wear flannel pants. The wedding host may be happy to have you dress in clean informal clothing.
If you’ve bought clothes in the past that look like dress clothes but are comfortable, too, now’s a great time to wear them. Just don’t sacrifice your comfort for the sake of the gathering.
If what you’re wearing is both comfortable and looks nice, that’s great! But if you can’t wear fancy clothing and be comfortable at the same time, don’t force yourself to wear it.
Some families want to take family group photos and have everyone looking nice in those photos. If your family gathering involves that, then bring (or even borrow) a nice outfit, wear it for the photo, and change back into your normal clothes.
Don’t think that it’s “just a few hours” – those “few hours” in uncomfortable or painful clothing can make the family gathering much harder to manage.
Arrive early. If the family gathering is not being hosted where you live, do your best to arrive early to the gathering. By arriving early, you allow yourself time to orient yourself with the house, find a quiet area that you could use to take breaks, and talk with the host without struggling to hear them over the noise (or interruptions from other family members!).
Talk with the host, if necessary. If you haven’t talked with the host before arriving at the gathering (or even if you have), now is the time to talk to them. After greeting them, try to ask them about anything you may need – whether it’s about where the quiet spot in the house is, or where you should put the bread rolls or gifts that you brought for the gathering. Get the important questions out of the way first, so that you don’t end up needing to ask at a point where you’re overwhelmed and losing your verbal ability.
Make your boundaries clear. Family gatherings are often a place where family members want to hug and tell you how much they missed you, or dive into potentially controversial or upsetting topics. It’s an important time to set boundaries and make sure that others know what you’re okay with and not okay with. Make it clear to others what you’re not comfortable with, and stick to it.
If you don’t want to be touched, make that clear, even at the expense of hurting someone’s feelings. It’s okay for anyone to not want to be touched.
Redirect conversations you’re not comfortable with. If your family members start talking about politics or religion, for example, and you aren’t comfortable with that subject, say, “I’m not comfortable with talking about that. Can we talk about something else?”, and change the subject.
Stim as much as you need to. You shouldn’t be afraid of looking a little different in order to cope with the gathering. Use the stims you need in order to be able to handle the gathering. It’s better to look a little odd than to end up having a meltdown or shutdown.
That being said, avoid extremely loud stims or stims that would be destructive (such as ripping things or knocking your head on the wall). Use stims that won’t hurt anyone or anything.
If you’re concerned about looking strange, or if your family doesn’t know you’re autistic, you can try stimming discreetly.
Buying or making a small stim toy before the gathering can be a great choice if you need a small toy for your hands to fiddle with.
Take breaks when you need them. With the sheer amounts of people and new input and information, you may find yourself getting worn out and needing to step away from the situation. That’s okay. If you need to take a break, some things you can do are:
Help out in the kitchen. Some autistic people find that repetitive tasks such as cleaning dishes or preparing food can give them a break from the gathering.
Go to your quiet area. Make sure that people know not to bother you while you’re in this area. If you can’t use your quiet area, it’s not an optimal situation, but you can go into a bathroom and lock the door – just be aware that some people may come knocking and asking if you’re okay if you stay in there for extended periods.
Stay in less occupied areas of the room. If you’re unable to leave, duck into the quieter areas of the room and stay there. Oftentimes, the sides of rooms will be less occupied, and it’s not considered strange to sit or stand away from the crowds when there’s a lot going on.
Ask the host if there’s something you can do or somewhere you can go. Some neurotypical people can get tired easily by crowds, especially if they’re introverts, so chances are, they’ll be understanding if you say that you want some quiet.
Ask questions about the other people. People love to talk about themselves, and you may find it easier if they do most of the talking. Find out what they like, and get them talking about it.
Prepare yourself for mealtimes. Food can be a problem for some autistic people, and with so many people talking at the table, it’s easy to become overwhelmed. If you anticipate potential trouble with the mealtime, find ways to minimize the risks and making the meal enjoyable.
Try to sit at a quieter spot at the table, if possible, to minimize the auditory feedback that you’re hearing all at once. If you’re sensitive to smell, ask that foods with strong odors be placed away from you, too.
Consider establishing a “game” of sorts with conversation to avoid being overloaded with too much conversation. For example, there can be a typical “What are you thankful for?” discussion at Thanksgiving, or everyone gets 60 seconds to bring up a subject that they find particularly interesting.
Eat what you know you can eat. Many autistic people are finicky about their food, which can be caused by anything from sensory sensitivity to not wanting to break from a meal routine. Choose foods that you know that you like and can eat without problems.
Consider helping make the food, if possible. Some autistic people find that if they’ve helped to prepare a food, it makes it easier to try it.
Bringing large servings of food to the gathering can be useful for mealtimes; it not only ensures that you have food to eat, but it gives others food, too.
Exchange gifts. The holiday season is a common time for people to give and receive gifts, especially around religious holidays such as Christmas or Hanukkah. If giving gifts is part of this family gathering, prepare yourself for noise and excitement, particularly if there are young children around. Ask the attendees of the gathering if they can agree to open one gift at a time, rather than having multiple people open several gifts at once, to lessen some of the chaos. If they hesitate, point out to them that if everyone opens only one gift at a time, everyone can see what the other person has received. And remember, use your coping mechanisms, and take breaks if you need them.
If you receive a gift and don’t like it, do not say that you don’t like it – doing so is considered rude and may hurt the giver’s feelings. Smile and say “Thank you”.
Some well-meaning family members may give gifts that you’re unable to handle for whatever reason, whether it causes sensory issues or it’s something that frightens you. If this happens, thank them, but put it back in its box. Don’t feel obligated to use it.
Be prepared – even if you haven’t received a noisy, flashy, or otherwise overwhelming gift, another family member may end up receiving one. If they do, ask them politely to not use it while you’re there, or to take it into another room. For example: “That toy is really cool, Tessa, but it’s pretty noisy. Do you think you could play with it in the living room instead?”
See if you can spend time with the family. Oftentimes, families like to spend time talking with each other and communicating about what’s been going on in their lives, and younger children may play with each other (or with older adults). If you think you’re capable of handling the family time and all the chatter, try to join in with some conversation and socialize with people. You can talk about many things, from school or work, to that weird news story you read the other day about those feuding neighbors. Be sure to listen to the person (or people) that you’re talking to, and give them chances to speak, as well.
Subjects such as religion, politics, and medical afflictions are generally not things to bring up at a gathering. Avoid bringing up these topics yourself; stick with more lighthearted subjects such as vacations, things that are on TV like sports and shows, and asking about family members who aren’t at the gathering (such as “How’s your husband?”). If someone tries to bring up a controversial topic and seems like they want to fight about it, change the subject by either telling them that you don’t want to discuss the topic, or starting a conversation with someone about a different topic.
Some autistic people find it hard to relate to their peers. You may find it easier to spend time with family members who aren’t in your same age range.
If you want to make conversation but aren’t totally sure how to do so, you may want to learn about a few ways to start a conversation with nothing to talk about.
Don’t push yourself. You don’t need to overwhelm yourself into a meltdown or shutdown just because it’s a family gathering. Take breaks when you need them, enforce your boundaries, and if you feel as though you’re going to melt down, get somewhere quiet and stay there for as long as you need. The family gathering is not as important as your health and well-being.
If you need to leave early and can do so, then do so. Don’t force yourself to stay somewhere that’s overwhelming you.
“Wind down” after the gathering. Chances are, no matter how well you’ve handled the gathering, you’re probably going to be tired afterwards. Take some time for yourself when you get the chance and do something you enjoy. Engage in anything involving your special interest, do a relaxing activity, and reward yourself with a treat. You attended a family gathering, after all!
The earlier you can discuss accommodations with the host, the better.
If you really feel like you’re unable to handle the gathering, you can consider not going at all. Keep in mind, though, that if you live with your parents or guardians, they may make you go anyway, which requires you to have coping skills available.
If the gathering is being hosted at your house, establish that your room is a “no-entry zone” and that it’s specifically for you to go when you need it.
Autistic people who have a driver’s license and a car can consider using the car when they get overwhelmed. Going for a short drive can be a useful way of getting away from the noise, especially since you can go out to a store to buy something, and not confuse your family members with your seemingly random car ride.
Not everyone is understanding of autism. You may need to be cautious of who you tell that you’re autistic, or explain your needs without directly saying that you’re autistic.
Being family is not an excuse to mock, bully, or belittle you. If a family member is intentionally upsetting you by doing things they know you don’t like, such as triggering your sensory sensitivities, tell them firmly that they need to stop.
Be Openly Autistic
Tell People You’re Autistic
Reduce Sensory Overload
Avoid Stress During the Holidays
Cope with Loud Fireworks if You’re Autistic
Host an Autistic Friendly Family Gathering
Plan and Organize a Family Reunion
Reduce Holiday Travel Stress
Deal With Relatives You Hate
EditSources and Citations
Note: Some of these sources are directed at parents of autistic children. However, the advice can still be construed towards autistic teens and adults.
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