The Holiday Accommodations I Need as a Neurodivergent Person

For most of my adult life, I’ve spent the majority of my time around neurodivergent people, whether people with diagnosed mental illnesses, people with autism, or people who fall into some fuzzy undiagnosed space. Almost across the board, these people struggle when it’s the holiday season. Unsurprisingly, as someone with an eating disorder and autism, I also have a hard time with the holidays.

Starting towards the end of high school, I began to feel more and more stress during the holidays. I have distinct memories of crying during family gatherings, of feeling panic at the thought of big groups of people I only see once a year, of trying to parse exactly how much I could eat without arousing suspicion. It was like a minefield.

Of course it didn’t click with me to ask for accommodations until many years of therapy later. But I eventually started to get it, and made some requests; less long stretches of time with the family. More flexibility for me to take a break if I need to. No comments about food. My family overall was understanding, but somehow the stress kept coming. I felt like I was letting them down every time I said “I can’t make it to that party.” They wanted to see me and I was saying I didn’t want to see them as much as they wanted to see me.

Or at least that’s how it seemed to them, and what I internalized.

I only figured this out this year, when I told my mother I enjoyed Thanksgiving and she reacted with shock. I had spent so much time trying to explain what was hard for me about the holidays that my family thought I hated them. They thought I didn’t want to be with them during the holidays. I suddenly saw a major disconnect between myself and those around me that happens in many instances when trying to ask for accommodations, but for the holidays most specifically:

When I ask for an accommodation, or tell people I’m struggling with something, I think I’m communicating that it’s important for me to find a way to participate and asking for help in making that happen. When other people hear me ask for accommodations or hear about things that trigger, stress, and overwhelm me, they think I’m saying I don’t want to participate, don’t care, or won’t enjoy myself. In fact in some cases, especially when socializing is involved, it can be difficult for neurotypical people to understand that even if I love someone, socializing can be draining and downright painful at times.

When I say the holidays are stressful for me, I don’t mean I want to avoid my family during the holidays, or miss our traditions and events. I don’t mean that being with my family is a stressor, or that I don’t like them. I mean that I need help adjusting those traditions and events to work for my sensory system, socializing abilities, and food needs.

It’s easy to feel defensive when someone says your traditions don’t work for them. It’s easy to feel like it’s a personal attack on you or a commentary on how enjoyable you are. I want to strongly encourage families of neurodivergent individuals to practice some curiosity and empathy this holiday season. If your loved one gets stressed out by the holidays, ask more about why. Ask what you can do to make it easier. Ask what they would want in their ideal holiday. Chances are, they don’t want to be alone. They just don’t want to be overwhelmed.

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