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The Lesson I Learned When Our Family Opted Out of Holiday Parties


Holidays used to be a challenge for our special needs family. My wife and I have two boys, Peter and Daniel, aged 17 and 15. Dan is autistic and nonverbal. Years ago, my wife and I made the decision to no longer go from home to home trying to see everyone for the holidays. What is often meant to be a fun and relaxing tradition with relatives was stressful for our son and a challenge to plan. For the weeks leading up to the holidays, we would have discussions, checklists, plans, backup plans and worry all the way to the party.

So instead, we opted out. We decided we were going to stay at home and have Dan in his most comfortable environment instead of going to another’s home. This decision would help alleviate many of the challenges we faced as a family. As for our other family members, we decided if we were not going to go to their home, we would instead have a “Holiday Open House” and invite everyone to come to our home. We called them and said something like, “If you can make it, great. If not, no biggie. No pressure.” When we did this, something amazing happened. Everyone came to us. As I look back on the last 10-plus years of my life, I found I have consistently underestimated the amount of support available to us.

This year will be our 10th year of hosting the holidays. I am so grateful for our loving and understanding family. They support us, love Dan immeasurably and don’t judge our methods. What was a family decision to help our son years ago is now our family tradition. At our party, Dan often hangs in his room, comes down periodically to see who is here and check on the festivities. And as the years have gone on, he has gotten more into it, coming down more frequently and hanging out with the guests. The difference today is that when he has had enough, he goes to his room for some quiet or to be more in control. During the party, family filter in and out of his room to see him, play with him, or just to get some one-on-one Dan time.

Some of the great things my wife does to make this a fun day include a (heated) trivia contest, a “guessing jar” of candy where the attendees guess the number of pieces, and the wildest “White Elephant” exchange in history. All contests have small fun gifts, and I am always as surprised as others to see what they are. As for me, I make it my goal to provide a huge holiday meal and channel my inner chef.

In looking back, this decision has helped us be more aware of the opportunities and support we have. At times, it can be easy to get overwhelmed and think we alone must solve every challenge in our child’s life. This experience and many others have taught me that when we let go of how things “should be” and realize we don’t have to do it alone, the possibility of something better always presents itself. Funny enough, what was once a stressful decision for my wife and I has ended up being one of the greatest Christmas gifts I ever received: a change in perspective.

My hope for the readers of this article is if you have a child with special needs in your family, that this year you receive the same gift I did.

Image via Contributor.

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