Ah, the holidays. A time for celebration, gifts, merriment, and–meltdowns due to sensory overload, confusing social expectations, and changes in routine? For many of your autistic employees, yes. Why is that? Because the things that make holiday parties fun for neurotypical people are the same things that make them quite, well, un-fun for us.
Allow me to explain:
If you’re a neurotypical person who is relatively outgoing and doesn’t struggle with social anxiety, an invitation to the company holiday party can give you a pleasant tingle of expectation in your gut. You know you’re about to be included in a social event where you’ll get to dress up, eat great food, drink a few adult beverages, gossip, dance, and exchange gifts. It will be a chance to see your colleagues “in the wild”, so to speak; to get to know them on a more personal level, meet their significant others, and have a chance to bond and grow your network.
If you’re an autistic person, an invitation to the company holiday party can cause a pit of dread in your gut. You know you’re about to be obligated to wear clothes that make you uncomfortable, eat food you’re unfamiliar with, sit in awkward silence as others gossip around you, and feel pressured to manually produce the “correct” facial expressions in response to gifts. You’ll also be expected to maintain witty banter with not only your co-workers but also their significant others, whom you probably won’t meet until the night of the yuletide soirée.
This isn’t to say all neurotypical or autistic people will have the same feelings about parties as I mentioned in the above examples. But it does go to show that individual experiences are subjective, and what mainstream society may automatically associate with fun, such as a party, other people (neurodivergent, introverted, anxious, sensitive, chronically ill, disabled, etc.) may see as the exact opposite.
However, it’s not as simple as claiming, “parties aren’t fun for anyone who doesn’t fit into the ‘mainstream society’ category”. Parties can be fun for a diverse group of people if they are accessible to those people.
So, here are 5 ways you can make your holiday parties more accessible for your autistic employees:
- Let them opt out without any social or professional consequences.
Accessibility isn’t always about providing accommodations at an event, it’s also about allowing people to opt out of events without social or professional consequences.
If your company still holds to the idea that employees who do not attend social events outside of work are suspect, strange, anti-social, or undeserving in any way, that way of thinking is not only outdated, it’s also ableist.
Socializing should never be a requirement for professional advancement, and the inability to attend social events should not “count against” a person’s reputation.
- Offer clear and concise driving, parking, and itinerary information.
Not only am I autistic and ADHD, I’m also dyspraxic, and it has a profound effect on my ability to orient myself in space. Before GPS, leaving my neighborhood was always a gamble as to whether or not I’d find my way to where I was going and be able to reverse the directions in my head to get back home. I’ve opted out of many events for the simple fact that I knew I would get lost.
Even though GPS is much more popular and available now, it’s still a good idea to provide clear and concise instructions on how to get to the venue. Use landmarks and offer a phone number that attendees can call if they get turned around on the way.
Furthermore, be clear about parking. Is it on the street? A parking lot across the street? Behind the building? Will there be a valet? I’ve also avoided many a social gathering because I wasn’t fully versed on the parking situation, and I didn’t want to have that much anxiety built up and that much of my energy drained before I even walked into the building.
Another way to provide accessibility and reduce the mental load on your autistic employees is to offer an itinerary if there are scheduled events within the main event.
- 6 to 7 PM – Appetizers and Drinks
- 7 to 8 PM – Dinner
- 8:00 to 8:30 PM – Gift Exchange
- 8:30 to 9:30 PM – Prize Raffle
- 9:30 to 11:00 PM – Dancing, Mingling, Free Time
- 11:00 PM – Party Ends
Knowing what to expect (and knowing the best time to factor in sensory and social breaks) can help ease feelings of anxiety and overwhelm.
- Be aware of their need to take social breaks.
Your autistic employees may not be able to stay in the main room and socialize straight through the entire night. If you notice Tina heading off to the coat room or Bob sitting out in his car for 20 minutes, they may be taking some much-needed social breaks. Resist the urge to brand this behavior as rude or anti-social. They are actually regulating their nervous systems so they can continue to be social.
- Offer a sensory-friendly space away from the main party.
Another great way to provide accessibility at your office holiday party is to offer one room or space that is specifically designated to be a sensory-friendly refuge from the main party. This way, not only will your employees not have to hide amongst the coats or in a freezing car, it will ‘normalize’ the need for these breaks while providing a built-in explanation for them!
- Make accommodations for dietary needs.
This is a big one, but it’s also one that’s frequently missed. Many autistic people have sensory aversions and food allergies that can make navigating social events a challenge. You can provide accessibility to these individuals by taking an email poll and/or asking about dietary restrictions while you’re still in the planning stages of your holiday get-together.
There’s a stereotype that autistic people avoid social events because they dislike being around other people a second longer than they have to, but that’s usually not the case. It’s not the ‘people’ part of being around people but rather the lack of insight those people have about how autistic folks experience the world.
With awareness and accessibility, holiday parties don’t have to be something your neurotypical employees look forward to but your autistic employees dread, they can be a place where people of all neurotypes meet in the middle and use compromise to find common ground and create a true sense of community.