Holidays, get-togethers, reunions, and other family get-togethers can be a source of great joy (and great stress). They can be especially tough for autistics, who may deal with social confusion, sensory overload, high demands, and other stressors. Here is how to make your get-together more inclusive, relaxed, and fun for your autistic relative(s).
EditPreparing the Environment
A casual, relaxed environment is likely to be calmer for everyone, and reduce stress on the autistic person.
Set up different rooms to focus on different activities. This allows guests to go from one room to another, based on what they want to do. You might put the toys in one room for the kids, food in one room for eating and socializing, a large group of chairs in another, and some puzzles/quiet activities and a few chairs in a side room for people to take breaks if needed.
This will help the autistic person “escape” for a while if they become tired or overwhelmed.
Keep the noise level down. Loud noise is overwhelming for most people, especially autistics. If you have to raise your voice to speak, it’s too loud.
Keep the TV off, or very quiet. Turning on closed captions and keeping the volume low helps.
Set aside an area for any children to do noisy play, such as outdoors or in the basement. If they’re getting loud, ask them to choose between quieting down or going outside.
Music should be quiet and relaxing, or nonexistent. (Try involving the autistic person in the playlist selection, so they can pick something familiar and calming.)
Ensure that mealtime seating is flexible. An autistic person may feel more comfortable sitting in a corner, sitting next to a trusted family member, sitting at a side table, or sitting in a quieter space. Let there be options.
Leave plates of appetizers sitting out so that people can grab some whenever they’d like.
Let people take food into other rooms, if possible.
Let people eat at different times if desired. This can be more relaxing than cramming everyone at one table.
EditPreparing for Different Needs
Check in with regards to the menu. Some autistic people have dietary needs that could influence what they can and can’t eat. Ask the person (or their parent/guardian) if the menu you’re planning sounds about right. There should be at least one thing they know they are able to eat.
Put spices on the side. This way, people can choose between no spice, some spice, or a lot of it.
Buffets, such as build-your-own sandwich, can fit a variety of eaters.
Some autistic people prefer simple foods, like plain macaroni and cheese, cheese pizza, crackers, pudding, and other “kid food.”
Encourage the person to get needed and wanted accommodations. Whatever helps keep them calm and happy will be beneficial to everyone. This could include:
Wearing a hoodie and putting up the hood
Wearing comfortable clothes instead of fancy clothes
Bringing familiar activities, comfort objects, or toys
Allow a shorter stay. Long social gatherings can be tough, and it’s okay if the person needs to leave early, or take long breaks. Reassure the autistic person and their family that some or all of the family can leave early if needed and that there will be no hurt feelings.
For an overnight trip, the autistic person may benefit from staying at a quiet hotel, where they can relax with only immediate family or on their own.
Talk with the autistic person about what to expect (if applicable). Improvising in a social situation can be tricky, so it helps for the autistic person to rehearse and plan for an unexpected or difficult situation. Younger or higher-support autistics can benefit from social stories and extra prep.
“If you get overwhelmed, you can go to Grandma’s bedroom, where it will be quiet. There are some papers and colored pencils so you can draw there if you want.”
“Uncle Mort really likes hugs. If you don’t want a hug, you can say ‘I would prefer a handshake, please.'”
“People will give gifts. Say ‘Thank you,’ even if you don’t like it. If you don’t like it, keep that secret, until we are back at home where you can tell me.”
Prep the autistic person for any rude family members, if needed. Dealing with impolite or nasty relatives is hard for everyone, but especially an autistic person, who may have fewer social skills and may make an easy target for nasty comments.
“Aunt Jenny criticizes people because it makes her feel better about herself. It’s not fair, and it’s not right. It’s just what she does. So if she says anything about you, remember that she’s just saying it because she doesn’t know better.”
“I know Grandpa is mean sometimes. It’s not your fault. You didn’t do anything to deserve it.”
“Sometimes Uncle Roberto says mean things when he’s stressed. It can especially be hard for his daughter Ana. If he gets angry, you can leave the room by yourself, or invite Ana to go do a puzzle with you.”
EditCreating a Relaxed Atmosphere
Talk to other family members as needed. Explain that the person’s needs might be a little different and that they aren’t trying to be “difficult” or “naughty.” They’re just autistic.
“Emily gets upset easily. It’s not on purpose, it’s because holidays can be stressful, especially for autistic people. If you think she might need a break, encourage her to go outside for a short walk, or tell me so I can help her.”
“Kids, you may notice that Alex moves a little differently, and he doesn’t talk much. Everyone is different, and that’s okay. Alex really likes to play dinosaurs. Maybe you’d like to play dinosaurs with him?”
“Dad, I know you think LeBron acts weird, and you don’t like that he doesn’t make eye contact. That’s normal and healthy for autism. I need you to be kind and supportive towards him so that I can feel good about having him come visit you.”
Make hugs and kisses optional. Depending on their sensory needs and mood, the autistic person may not want to be touched. During hellos and goodbyes, say that if someone doesn’t want hugs/kisses, they could do a handshake, high five, or just wave goodbye instead.
Encourage other relatives to go along with it. Explain that you’re trying to teach the kids and/or the autistic person that they get to choose who touches them on their own terms.
Be flexible with everyone. Different people have different needs, autistic or not. Be willing to make adjustments so that everyone can be comfortable and have the most amount of fun they can.
Allow small group and one-on-one discussions to break off. Socializing in smaller groups can be less stressful for autistics (along with introverts and shy people). Let it move organically and allow people to separate from the main group as needed.
Step in if you notice things getting heated. Conflict is stressful for everyone. Autistic people especially can find it distressing, and may not have the social skills to de-escalate it or take care of themselves.
Remind others not to raise their voices.
Try changing the subject.
EditSupporting the Person
Keep conversations relaxed with the autistic person. If you chat with the autistic person, try asking about their interests. Talking with an autistic person isn’t incredibly different from talking to a non-autistic person.
Expect different body language, like fidgeting and lack of eye contact. This is normal.
Keep it age-appropriate. A nonspeaking 12-year-old is still a 12-year-old and is unlikely to appreciate baby talk.
Don’t be scared! Autistic people are still people.
Accept unusual behavior. It’s natural for autistic people to be a little odd, and it doesn’t have to be a big deal. For autistics, natural behavior includes:
Not making eye contact
Fidgeting and wiggling
Being quite honest (sometimes a little too honest)
Taking things literally
Struggling to deal with frustration, and needing more breaks
Respect boundaries. The person may not be up for talking, hugging, kissing, et cetera, depending on their mood and individual needs. Don’t push them. Let them do what keeps them comfortable.
Check in if the person looks stressed. It’s helpful to ask how they’re doing from time to time, and offer an escape if they look overwhelmed. Reassuring them that they can take a break makes it easier on them.
“Want to go take a break in my bedroom? There are some coloring books in there you could color in.”
“Would you like to come with me in the car to go pick up the pizzas? It would be just you and me.”
“Angie, you look overwhelmed. Let’s go for a short walk and smell the fresh air, just you and me.”
Let them enjoy the gathering in their own way. Maybe it means sitting under tables, rocking back and forth, or eating crackers instead of the fancy food you arranged. That’s okay. What’s most important is that everyone has fun.
If the person has major dietary restrictions, they or their family could bring suitable food if that makes it easier.
Encourage people to respect the autistic person’s right to privacy. Publicly discussing the autistic person’s issues is embarrassing (even if the autistic person can’t or doesn’t say so). If people start talking about their intimate personal details, say “Let’s respect ____’s privacy” and change the subject.
For gift-giving, try asking the person’s family what they like, or having the person list some ideas. Knowing the person’s special interests, and popular gifts for autistics, helps.
If young children will be around, place dangerous or breakable items out of reach.
Don’t push a distressed autistic person even harder. This will likely just lead to a meltdown or shutdown.
Now is a bad time to over-challenge the autistic person because the environment itself is likely going to be challenging. Avoid criticizing, over-correcting, pushing too hard, and trying to make the person handle even more (such as entering an overwhelming social situation, or trying a new food they didn’t say they wanted to try).
Make a Calming Down Corner
Attend Family Gatherings When You Are Autistic
Plan and Organize a Family Reunion
Relate to an Autistic Person
Interpret Autistic Body Language
Avoid Drama at Family Gatherings
Calm an Autistic Child
EditSources and Citations
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