The holidays can be a wonderful time: pretty music and lights, rich foods, and gatherings with friends and family. They can also be sensory overload, especially for autistic people. With some thoughtful planning ahead of time, you can help make your special events more sensory friendly and inclusive to all.
Be mindful of the space
Make the office party or family dinner a scent-free event—this is helpful for autistic guests who may be sensitive to strong smells (as well as guests with asthma or allergies). Offering gluten-free choices at the holiday table is another way to accommodate guests with dietary restrictions.
Remind guests that consent doesn’t take a break over the holidays. Not everyone enjoys or can tolerate hugs, kisses, tickles or other forms of physical attention, but everyone—at any age—has the right to say no.
Communicate details ahead of time
Give your autistic guests a general sense of what the event will be like—how many people are expected, what kind of space it will be in—to help them reduce anxiety and plan adaptations in advance. Have a quiet area or room available for anyone needing a sensory break.
It’s also important to make accessible those activities that require a lot of sitting still and being silent, like a long church service. A person with verbal stims or tics, for example, should be welcome in these settings, not shunned.
Adjust your expectations
Many houses of worship are recognizing this. The Unitarian Universalist community, for example, has its own Accessibility and Inclusion Ministry, a program to help congregations become more accessible and to teach clergy and lay professionals about the diverse ways that people move and communicate.
At events such as school concerts where there are many distractions, it can be very hard to sit still, says Anne Borden of Autistics for Autistics, a Canadian autistic self-advocacy organization.
Encourage participation on their own terms
“If someone is watching a recital and starts moving or dancing, think about the stigma you will put on them by reacting harshly,” Ms. Borden says.
“Ask yourself, ‘Is this hurting anyone, or is this just someone getting into the mood of a performance, or maybe taking steps to regulate their sensory response to all the stimuli?’ Chances are, the person really wants to be a part of things, and stigma destroys that. We would all do well to let people be.”
For parents taking autistic children to seasonal events like these, Ms. Borden advises they sit in an aisle seat, so it’s easy to leave for a break if needed. A favourite object or stim toy can sometimes help to ground them.
“Remember that it’s challenging for your child: that they’re trying, that these spaces aren’t always inclusive. Be inclusive yourself. Be a team together. Give positive feedback to your child and aim for connection.”
Any school, place of worship or other community space can learn how to be more inclusive during the holidays, says Ms. Borden, noting that Autistics for Autistics will be posting holiday tips on its Facebook page and Twitter feed (@A4AOntario) throughout December. “Inclusion is everyone’s responsibility,” notes Ms. Borden.