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A Parent’s Guide to Neurodiverse Family Gatherings

Whether it is for the holidays, a birthday, or a Sunday dinner, family gatherings can be a challenge for a child on the autism spectrum. New locations, large crowds, and strange noises - a large family gathering can be a dysregulating, sensory overload for a child with autism. ‍However, with a little preparation, you can successfully host (or attend) a neurodiverse family gathering with your child with autism. 

Alex Hurtado
Neurodiversity Advocate

December 20, 2023

Talk to Your Family in Advance

One of the most important things you can do when preparing for a neurodiverse family gathering is to take the time to talk to your family in advance. As the parent you know your child, their needs, and their sensitivities best. You live with your child and understand their day-to-day needs and challenges. Grandma and grandpa, aunts and uncles, cousins, no matter how much they love your child they may not fully understand their unique autistic traits and needs. 

Take the time to fully explain autism to the rest of your family. Use easy-to-understand language (this is especially important when talking to children in the family) and give other family members an opportunity to ask any questions they may have. Talk about your child’s unique needs and sensitivities. Is your child sensitive to sounds? Do they struggle to make eye contact? Do they not like physical touch? These are things that will help your family better understand your child and help make the occasion easier for your child to attend. 

Practice with Your Child

Think about the kind of event you are attending or hosting. Are there any activities or formalities that are expected that your child with autism may not be used to? 

For example, on Thanksgiving, it is common for many families to all gather together and eat a very large meal with new foods. At birthday parties, usually, the party guests will gather around the guest of honor and sing “Happy Birthday.” 

Children on the autism spectrum like routine and predictability. New activities can be a challenge for children with autism. To help prepare your child for an upcoming family gathering, take the time to talk to your child about the event, who will be there, and what kind of activities will take place. Things like social stories, videos, and pictures can be great aids in this. 

Another important step to take is to practice any new scenarios or activities with your child. If you are getting ready to go into the holiday season you may want to practice opening gifts. Whether attending or hosting, family gatherings will likely include greeting people. Think about things that will be happening at your upcoming family gathering and practice those things with your child. 

Create a Safe Space

Large family gatherings can be overwhelming for a child with autism. It is very important to create a safe space for your child to escape to if they begin to feel overwhelmed or simply need a break from everyone else. 

Designate a room (or an area if a room is not available) to be your child’s safe space. In this area place things that will help your child calm down and relax. You may want to include things like noise-canceling headphones, a tablet to watch videos on, books, fidget toys, and a weighted blanket. Make sure your child knows where this room (or space is) and that they can use it whenever they need to “get away.”

If you are not hosting, but attending a family gathering, ask the host in advance if there is a room or space you can designate as your child’s safe space for the duration of the event. 

Be Mindful of Noise & Decorations

Children with autism often have sensory sensitivities. They can easily become overwhelmed by things like bright lights, loud sounds, and overwhelming smells. You'll want to keep your child’s sensory needs in mind when decorating for your family gathering. 

Keep decorations to a minimum. You may want to consider decorating little by little and getting your child involved. This will give them time to adjust to the decorations and give you a better idea of when enough is enough for them. 

During the event be mindful of any excess noise or smells. Consider eliminating unnecessary background music or turning off an unwatched television. Ask guests to avoid wearing strong perfumes and skip the scented candles. 

If attending a family gathering be sure to share your child’s sensory sensitivities with the host and work with them on ways to minimize a sensory overload for your child. 

Provide a Variety of Food Options

Many children with autism have food sensitivities, struggle to eat new foods, or may be picky eaters. No matter what kind of eater your child is, it is important to have a variety of food at your family gathering, including safe foods that you know your child will enjoy. 

When attending a family gathering, ask the host in advance what the menu is going to be. If it doesn’t look like there will be a dish your child will eat, consider volunteering to bring a dish and it’s always a good idea to pack extra snacks that you know your child will like. It may even be a good idea to have your child eat before the event. 

Lastly, Watch for Sensory Overload

No matter how much you prepare in advance things can always happen. Throughout the event check in on your child and watch for signs of sensory overload. If at any chance you notice your child becoming overwhelmed and overstimulated be sure to step in and help your child. 

Reviewed by:

Laura Barnes

Laura has 14 years of BCBA experience that involves leading clinical teams and designing seminars and workshops for clinicians and families. She serves as the Senior Clinical Director of Atlas and is dedicated to learning from all and disseminating all that she learns.

Authored by:

Alex Hurtado
Neurodiversity Advocate

Alex partners closely with neurodiverse families, clinical experts, and advocates to bring you helpful guides.