Family life can be busy and chaotic, and you may feel like you are constantly juggling to try and keep some balance to get through the day and avoid a crisis. Changes to everyday routines, such as celebration days and events, can be difficult for neurodivergent people to manage and get more complex within a family situation. It may feel like a never-ending stream of celebrations with your family and friends’ birthday parties, weddings, and everything else can feel daunting and overwhelming.
If your family or children are neurodivergent, their specific needs will differ from others, and their sensory, social and communication differences will need more consideration. It may help to flip your thinking towards a more neurodiversity-affirming perspective. This will enable you to have a more flexible approach and, over time, could help to make things easier for everyone, so the whole family can benefit.
You might feel like you sometimes need to make excuses for events, end up cancelling plans at the last minute or leave places early due to either your energy levels, anxiety or your children's capacity to manage, or both. It may feel like you have just about 'survived' the actual event but are left feeling burnt out having to support your children afterwards. This article will explore some neurodivergent-friendly ideas that will not only help the whole family 'get through' a celebration but will also provide some ideas to ensure everyone can enjoy and join in a celebration in a way that is right for them. Celebrations and Parties
There can be a great deal of uncertainty around parties and celebrations. Lowering the uncertainty and preparing children in advance will help reduce their anxiety and make it easier and events run smoother. Celebrations often involve adapting to change, such as sensory changes (clothes, food, noise) and a shift in expectations surrounding social communication demands, this can be really difficult to manage if you are neurodivergent.
To put this into a context that may be familiar to some people, imagine you have bought new clothes for your child, but on the day of the party, they won't even touch them, let alone wear them. After much negotiation, your child may finally get dressed, but then you must overcome the hurdles of hair brushing and putting shoes on. After a potentially stressful time and managing to gather your whole family into the car, you may feel you have ‘won’ one battle. Your child is finally dressed in clothes you think are suitable for the occasion, and you are on the way to the party. Hurdle one has been achieved, but you are now arriving late and feeling stressed; your child will likely become increasingly dysregulated if they are uncomfortable in their clothes … you can probably see where this is heading!
Can’t, not won't
Fortunately, there are things we can do as parents /carers to help prevent or reduce the likelihood of sensory/social overload and burnout. A change of mindset and a flexible, low-demand approach can benefit both your autistic /PDA / ADHD child and the rest of the family to have a more successful and happy time together. Instead of seeing your child as the problem because they wouldn't get dressed, have made you late, and are now being 'picky' with their food, it is worth having a think about what could be changed in the environment and through the way you connect with your child to make it easier.
If you, your child, or your family are neurodivergent, the scaffolding needed for a party to be a success can be exhausting. It is essential to acknowledge all the hard work and energy it takes. Giving yourselves plenty of time to rest and recover before and after an even can help enormously.
It can help to plan some extra cushioning time into your diary and allow space either side of an event or celebration to prepare and store energy ready for the event and afterwards to recover. This will help prevent (or lessen the severity) sensory, social overload and burnout experiences. Everyone wants parties and celebrations to be a success; if people don’t understand your family’s needs, then they can’t make any change. Talking to friends and family before a visit or event could help and enable you to work out a more flexible plan that works for everyone.
Working together as a family
Working together and discussing what the celebration will be like in advance may help ease anxiety and prepare your children. It may help to show them photos of where you are going and who will be there so they know what to expect. If the party is in your own house, then involving them in setting up any decorations will help them feel a part of things and is a gentle way to introduce the changes. It can help to keep one area of your house (possibly their room or a den) unchanged so they have their own safe, familiar space if things feel too much. If your children are able to discuss things with you, it is a good idea to talk with them about what to wear, what to take, and strategies or what to do if things start to feel too much. Being involved with the preparation will give your child a sense of autonomy and control and reduce anxiety. Some people use a code word or have a small item or use a signal of some kind with their children so that if they are anxious, they can say the code word. This is a discrete way that works for some children to signal to their parents that they need help without everyone knowing if they are anxious about people seeing them as 'different'. You may want to practice using this at home or in a more familiar situation. It is a way to show you listen, care, and understand. Acting on signals they share when they are starting to feel overwhelmed could not only avoid a crisis at that moment but could also help prevent a more severe burnout or crisis later. For younger children or those with communication difficulties, this may mean you need to look out for these signs and keep ‘reading’ the situation and using your judgment but have some favourite sensory toys and calming activities ready near by for when needed. Many autistic people will mask to try and fit in. This is exhausting and is only manageable for short periods before it feels too much, and it can lead to sensory/social overload (meltdown /shutdown) and burnout. It is good to talk about how to manage this with your children and let them know that if things feel too much, then it is okay for them to tell you. Remind them that you will always listen to them and can leave early if needed. Having a flexible approach and a trusting relationship is important. Sometimes, just knowing that flexibility is an option can help relieve some of the pressure and anxiety. Sharing stories about your own difficulties or sensory differences can help, too so they know they are not alone. Adopting a low-demand approach A low-demand approach is about being flexible in meeting your children's needs. A low-demand approach can help strengthen trust and deepen understanding; it is about listening to needs in the moment and adapting to the situation. It is not about 'giving in' to your children's needs but about meeting needs and being flexible.
Sometimes, even the most flexible approach will not work in the moment. It is impossible to predict and plan for every eventuality and circumstance. However, a low-demand approach will help deepen trust and understanding and provide a better foundation of support to help you work through things together. It will help to ensure situations don’t escalate as often or as frequently, and over time, with consistency, things may become a bit easier for you both.
In a party situation, for your children to feel regulated they may need time doing a familiar activity they enjoy or engaging with their special interest. This can help ease anxiety and may be an opportunity for others to join in parallel play alongside them. Engaging in and entering a ‘flow state’ can help regulate the sensory system. For some children, this may involve playing on their phones or gaming. A short walk or run around outside may also help give space and time to re-set. Pushing for children to stay 'just' a bit longer will often have repercussions at some point. People only have the capacity to manage so much sensory, social, and communication input before it gets too much and they reach overload.
Thinking of the best ways to lower the anxiety and arousal levels for your children and yourself can help avoid a crisis. Much of our stress and anxiety come from the demands we place upon ourselves by trying to fit in and conform to our perceived expectations of others.
Listed below are some more ideas that may help your celebration be more successful:
Flexibility As a general rule, applying the word ‘flexibility’ in front of everything (time, space, clothes, food, expectations) is good! It will help if you try and predict some difficulties and think of ways to manage certain situations before you get there so you are prepared. Having a plan B (or X, Y, Z!) will help you feel calmer and more in control.
To enjoy any occasion, your mind and body need to be regulated. In an unfamiliar situation or during a celebration, there will likely be more sensory input and overwhelm from all the noise, people, food, and general partying. Having a bag with some sensory items in may help your child regulate. Their sensory bag may include ear defenders, fidget toys, a phone/tablet, their favourite snack food and drink, a blanket, or a toy. You could also make a bag for yourself, so you are in a better space for co-regulation to meet their needs. (There is more information about the sensory system and free e-book downloads in the 'RESOURCES' section of my website.
It is a fun activity to create a sensory bag with your child before an event and take it out with you for everyday things like shopping and visiting friends. This will allow your child to become familiar with and get used to it. The bag's contents may change, but this strategy will help develop independence and self-regulation skills.
Celebrations and events are often full of unpredictability, and this can heighten anxiety. To reduce stress, it may help if your child brings a familiar item with them. This can help with the transition, and it can also help to refocus your child when they are feeling stressed. This item may form part of their sensory bag.
As a parent, it may feel difficult to let go of how you think you 'should' be parenting. You may be worried about what people will think if your children are sat using their phones at a party or eating alone instead of socialising with others (or any other situation). However, discussing your children's needs with friends and family beforehand will help them understand that certain activities help regulate their sensory system and support good mental health in a situation that could otherwise be quite stressful.
Clothes For some children, new party clothes feel too different; they add a layer of anxiety to an already anxious/ stressful situation. This may mean they go to the party wearing a dressing-up outfit, an old tracksuit, or a onesie, but if they are happy and comfortable, that is the main thing and a wonderful success. Joining in and having an enjoyable time is better than missing out or being dysregulated because of not wearing the 'expected' outfit.
Food Celebrations often mean different food and drink, new tastes, smells, and sensory experiences. Bringing food your child is familiar with or letting people know beforehand so they can prepare something your child enjoys may help if your child struggles with new or different food. Some people also find eating in a quieter or different space helpful if it is too busy or noisy; having flexibility will help everyone enjoy the party.
Timing A flexible approach to time will help manage the potential overwhelm that a celebration or event may create. Depending on your family, it may help to arrive early so it is quieter or leave early if it gets too busy. It could help to plan to attend for only a brief time; this will enable you to join in, knowledge but it may be more manageable.
Celebrate in a way that is right for your family.
There is no 'right way' to navigate celebrations and parties; every family has unique and diverse needs, and the dynamics of every social event vary. Prior planning and adopting a low-demand approach will allow more flexibility and help to lower anxiety. This will help the whole family enjoy the celebration in a way that suits them.