When Holidays and Neurodiversity CLASH!

Holidays aren’t joyous for everyone, right?
I remember becoming anxious to the point of tears most holidays. I was often sent to my room “until I could get a hold of myself”. Until I could suppress the feelings inconveniencing others.
My mother had a large family so gatherings were packed. Overwhelm came swiftly. Not only because of the noise, and the body’s constantly bumping into each other, but the fact that I never really felt connected to anybody there.
I grew up with undiagnosed Autism and ADHD (forms of Neurodivergence – ND). So I really didn’t know how to connect with anyone. I felt like a stranger in my own family, still do. Not to mention, I was born on Christmas. Everybody seemed to forget my birthday year after year after year, (except mom and my grandparents). THAT matters a lot when I look back.
I recall a conversation with a client who was emotional over the idea of being made to go to the family Christmas gathering. She has ADHD and difficulty regulating her emotions, especially when under stress.
She catastrophized whenever imagining being at the holiday gathering. 
What parents by and large don’t get is what it costs people with ND who have difficulty regulating their emotions, regulating their stress response, regulating the intensity and how their body responds to it. The temperature and the environment, regulating how your body responds to sound, how it responds to lights, if there’s pictures being taken.
There’s so much coming in that a dysregulated nervous system has to account for, and try to keep you mentally and emotionally in balance. While doing all that, you’re expected to be pleasant, on your best behavior. It just doesn’t work if you need to perform with your needs unmet.
The luxury of hindsight demonstrates that I was overloaded, dysregulated and lacked the tools plus supports to navigate those experiences. I understand that now.
I encourage my ND clients to opt-out if experience shows their needs can’t be met in a way they’d enjoy themselves. I’m not saying submit a list of demands to the host to earn your attendance.
Know yourself well enough to spot when the venue, the size or time of the event just doesn’t work for your nervous system.
Traditions like Friendsgiving grants you more quality control over the size of the gathering, so you can have a more subdued and quality experience with others.
You want and need people in your life, the right people. But its extremely difficult to have a relationship with them all at once, when you pack them in a room together. Amplifying their noise, their smells, and so on.
Parents, spouses, family members, coworkers need to get this. Regardless of what you believe tradition demands. Regardless of how much meaning you put into the fact that it’s important to have everybody together on holidays. That’s a story. It’s not a fact. It’s not a must. It’s not something that absolutely needs to happen.
Another story is how miserable your loved one becomes, when they are guilted or forced into a scenario that’s going to cause them unnecessary suffering. You really want to support your ND loved one during the holidays. Don’t make them go. Let them stay home and take care of themselves.
If they want to connect with the individuals at the gathering, give them a way to do it. Let us zoom in for a little bit. We’re in that day and age now, right?
Those in attendance can send a text, email or card telling the ND family member they miss them, and share a supportive message. That helps us feel seen and connected, even though we aren’t physically there.
I know, these suggestions may go against your instincts, as somebody that doesn’t have these issues. But when it comes to somebody with ND, take their word for it, that that environment is too much.
We don’t experience gatherings the same way you do. We don’t usually thrive in group environments, we more often thrive one on one or smaller groups. So please honor our needs.
Please take this in and take it to heart. You may think you’re helping a person grow, by putting them in these challenging settings and saying, “This will toughen you up. This will teach you more resilience. This will teach you how to deal with situations that are tough to get through.”
It may show them they made a mountain out of a molehill, it may also be traumatizing. We can enjoy holidays, though we’re often best served by creating our own traditions, so we can experience the holidays with ease versus anxiety and belonging versus simply, longing.
May you experience ease this holiday season.
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