How to Host an Autism-Friendly Holiday Event

Christmas Inclusion Thinking Parents

The Noah Robert Project would like to ask what inclusion, acceptance, and understanding means to you. Today's guest blogger is Holly Terei, the founder of our Project, and the author of "Jacob the Flapping Dinosaur Goes to School"." Below, she shares some insight pertaining to the holiday season.

How to Host an Autism-Friendly Event

by: Holly Terei

Christmas time is here! The sights, the sounds, all the festivities to be had! It's my favorite time of year! But for some families, it can also be a time of stress, anxiety, and isolation. All that stimulation and change in routine can be challenging for kids on the spectrum, and it usually affects the entire family. Hosting an autism-friendly event provides families like mine the opportunity to be around those they love this holiday season.

I know understanding autism can be difficult for those without much experience. I hope this post offers you some insight and practical ways of providing an autism-friendly gathering.

First off, let me just say- don't worry. Autism parents realize that those who love and care about their family take great pride in meeting their needs. Any effort will truly touch your loved ones heart, even if you are learning as you go.

How To Host An Autism-Friendly Event

1. Give your guests plenty of notice.

Spur of the moment activities can be nearly impossible for some families with children on the spectrum. They may need time to plan, prep, and talk through any anxiety their child may have. Last minute invites, no matter how much a family may want to participate, can be nearly impossible due to the abrupt interruption of routine and already promised plans.

Also, be considerate of the financial burden most special needs families carry. Some need several weeks notice for events that require tickets, dinning out, or paid activities, as most family's budgets are dictated by co-pays, medications, diets, equipment, physicians, therapies, etc. 

2. Reach out prior to the event.

Many parents agree, it would feel rude to impose certain needs when invited to your home, even if you are family. They don't want to seem needy, or even worse... like a burden. You reaching out makes them feel better prepared, and cancels out those insecurities. Here are some suggested questions to ask:

"What does your child like to eat? Any food allergies, or special diet?"

Why: Some autistic children can only eat certain foods for different reasons, such as sensory issues, or due to food allergies. Whatever the reason, please be assured there is in fact a reason, and it is not due to pickiness. At the end of the day, parents do not want to force their child's diet on anyone. But they will feel great knowing they won't have to pack food from home, simply to eat it at your home! 

"Does your child have a fear of animals?" 

Why: Your guests know you love your dog or cat, and that they are like family to you. Unfortunately, you may need to put your animal way during their stay. The loud, unpredictable barking or jumping of a dog can send a child on the spectrum into a fear-filled meltdown, just as a cat that may jump or run under their feet can do the same. Unfortunately, there's not much that can be done to make an autistic child feel safe around your animal, especially when they are already in a new home, with new sights, sounds and smells.

"What are your child's sensory needs?"

Why: Bright lights, loud noise, hands clapping or piano playing... certain sights and sounds can cause over stimulation for a child with autism. Some things can not be avoided, like another child crying, or singing "Jingle Bells" loudly and off key. But knowing the need can help you possibly modify certain things.

Example: reminding the other children not to turn the t.v. up too loud, or turning on lamps, instead of overhead lights, to soften the light of a room. 

"Is there anything I can provide to make your child feel more comfortable in my home?"

Why: Favorite movies, t.v. shows, certain toys, puzzles or games can motivate an autistic child to stick around, just as any child! Usually, parents will bring some of these items along just in case. But it means so much when you ask what makes their child happy, and what keeps them busy! Your guests really want to visit with their friends and family too, and not have to struggle to keeping their child entertained. Sometimes just having a favorite show queued on your DVR makes the difference between a 20 minute visit and a 2 hour visit.

3. Be flexible with your expectations. 

When you say "hi," you may not receive a reply. You might even open your arms for a hug, but be denied. Giving your special guest a Christmas gift may not garner the excitement you had hoped for. Please, please, please, do not take it personally. Letting children on the spectrum set the pace can require patience and understanding. No matter what, know your kindness and loving approach will not go unnoticed! 

4. Explain autism to the other children.

This is so important and the reason for the book, Jacob the Flapping Dinosaur Goes to School. Please, take the time to educate your children about peers on the spectrum, especially if they are family. If you do not have a copy of Jacob, simply explain that their brain works in a special way, and that there are reasons why they behave like they do.

Some key behaviors you should discuss:

Hand flapping, spinning, jumping (stimming, self regulating behaviors)

Repetitive language, or repeating others (echolalia)

Lack of eye contact

Limited language skills

Most importantly, explain to your littlest guests why we need to be accepting, inclusive, and understanding. And don't be afraid to ask questions yourself! Parents are more than happy to answer any questions you may have prior to your gathering. 

5. Plan a sensory retreat ahead of time.

Your guests are not looking for a sensory room filled with swings and weighted blankets, however, that would be something! This simply means providing a quiet space where your special guests can go recharge and self-regulate. This can help an ASD child avoid a sensory meltdown.

For some autistic children, staying inside for a long period of time can be too confining. Offering a swing set outside, or a large room to walk and pace offers the same retreat for sensory seeking children.

6: Talk about life, not just autism.

Autism parents eat, sleep, breathe, everything pertaining to autism and sometimes they just want a break. Yourself, or other guests, may find it endearing to ask questions about vaccines or gut-health, during a Christmas dinner. Please be assured, no parent wants to answer the dreaded "What do you think causes autism?" question while passing the holiday ham. There is a time and a place to ask for their opinions, but this is not that setting. These types of questions may cause your guest feel uncomfortable and singled out. 

7: Above all else, just be kind.

Kindness is key. Nothing shows the true meaning of Christmas like love and compassion. Hosting an autism-friendly gathering may seem overwhelming, but truthfully, these are minor things you can do that will make a world of difference for your special guests. When you put forth the effort, you are showing that you care, and that is a great quality for any host. 

Please keep in mind that the autism spectrum is far and wide. If you have met one child with autism, you have met one child with Autism. Autistic individuals are just that, individuals. That's why it's important to take the time to learn about those on the spectrum, especially family members. I am forever grateful for the time and effort my friends and family have put forth over the years to make us feel included and accepted. How sad to know others may not feel that way. I challenge you to reach out to your loved ones this holiday season and offer up some help and support. 


Have something you would like to share that may be helpful to others this holiday season? Email us your thoughts

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