For many people, the holidays can bring challenges and stress, and this can be especially true for neurodivergent couples. Let's talk about what neurodiversity is and how it can come into play during the holidays!

What is a neurodivergent couple?

Neurodiversity. This term describes the idea that it’s normal and acceptable for people to have brains that function differently from one another. This definition is one that is less stigmatizing and has moved away from saying some people’s brains are wired differently.

For neurodivergent couples (typically) you will see two different types of partners. A neurotypical partner is one whose brain may be considered normal when compared to the general population.

On the other hand, a neurodivergent person’s brain function is not seen as normal as the processing is outside of what may be typical. Usually through interactions, they are made aware that there is a difference, and they are seen as abnormal. 

Another definition of neurodiversity is the idea that neurological differences, like autism and ADHD, are the result of abnormal natural variation in the human genome. This can also include externally evolved brain differences, like post traumatic stress disorder, a traumatic brain injury, a stroke, etc. These are all things that change what’s happening in the brain and would change how that person shows up in the world.

A neurodivergent couple (or neurodiverse couple) is a couple in which one or both partners are neurodivergent. This can potentially impact the relationship dynamic, and what’s happening between the two people. It can be both positive and negative.

Challenges for neurodivergent couples

The holidays can be a difficult time for neurodivergent couples for several reasons. One of these reasons being that the holidays often means a lot of overstimulation. There are more decorations, lights, noise, etc at this time of year. This can be triggering to a neurodivergent person, which can then cause issues for not only that person, but in their relationship as well.

Another challenge during the holidays can be the increase of social interaction; there are typically more events and get-togethers during this time of year. This can become overwhelming and bring stress to a neurodivergent couple, leaving them feeling stuck with too many obligations.

Although this time of year can be challenging for neurodivergent couples, there are many practical ways that can help ease the stress and overwhelm that may happen. All couples may find that they are able to better enjoy the holidays with a little careful planning and understanding. 

Neurodiversity and the holidays

Here are a few considerations that may prove to make your holidays a more enjoyable time. 

Prepare and plan ahead

One tip for ensuring a smoother and more enjoyable holiday season for all couples is planning ahead and setting limitations. Talk through how long you’ll stay, any expectations you have, and what you will do if those expectations aren’t met. This can mean preparing for any negative outcomes and how you will respond ahead of time. Knowing you are already prepared for unforeseen circumstances is important. 

Avoid overstimulation

Around the holidays there are usually a lot of decorations, noise, lots of crowds, different scents from baking, and just a lot of hustle and bustle. For some people with neurodivergent traits, there may be a strong affinity or there may be a complete repulsion against this sensory input. 

It’s important for each person to be able to take time to think and say, “What’s the sensory issue that I have? How does that show up for me? What do I end up doing when that’s a problem?”

There are four types of overwhelm and both neurotypicals and neurodiverse can struggle in these areas. The windows of tolerance may be different around them as well as the triggers, activation, and even awareness.

Those four categories of overwhelm are: 

Identifying what each of the levels of overwhelm mean as a couple, and then outlining what each partner needs at those points is important. Then, you can create a couple code that can help identify that they are approaching the top level and it can be done quickly. 

Sensory toolkits

While there are sensations that are overwhelming and challenging, there can be sensations that immediately calm a person down. For some people, it may be touching something soft or squeezing a stress ball. Have something that can immediately bring calm when you need it and keep it on hand for easy access. 

Interpret the differences

Sometimes when a person is overwhelmed and has to walk away from something, their partner may interpret that as “You’re abandoning me, you don’t want to be with me. You’d rather that I stayed here by myself, and you get to go be free and have fun.” 

Learn to reframe – my partner is really overwhelmed. He can’t talk to me right now and needs to take some space so that when he comes back, we can have a more effective conversation. That’s a very different filter than "my partner is abandoning me."

Identifying quiet zones

If you’re having company over at your house, is there a space that you can keep people out of? This can be for your neurodivergent partner to take a break if overwhelm sets in. Creating those spaces at home or if you’re going to somebody’s house can be important. 

Ask the hostess if there is a spot that if you needed to step out for a breather that you could use. This way when that person needs a break from the sensory overload and the social overwhelm, they can go and have a place for that.

Utilize scripts

Scripts can also be helpful. This is simply identifying what to say in a certain social situation. For example, someone with PTSD has a service dog and went to a wedding. He could not get a break from people walking up and asking him about his dog during the reception. Even though they were appropriately behaved, it was overwhelming for him.

Not having a break from the conversation and having to repeat the same thing over and over to the same question for essentially the length of the reception was exhausting for him. To combat this he wrote out scripts to use to get away from those conversations more appropriately. 

Prepare ahead of time for those uncomfortable or overwhelming conversations during the holidays.

Dress comfortably

Sometimes clothing can be an issue in terms of a sensory overload. If a person is supposed to wear a suit or something formal that is uncomfortable, see if there’s some wiggle room around what to wear for a gathering. This way you're in more comfortable clothing and not constantly reacting to that tactile trigger. 

Eat prior or pack a meal

There can be food issues that come up around the holidays as well. A neurodiverse individual may have sensory issues around food, whether it’s taste or texture. Either eating prior to a gathering or having a separate meal for the gathering can be extremely helpful. 

This is also a social issue because sometimes guests or hosts may not appreciate that a person isn’t eating very much, isn’t really indulging in other food or brings their own food. This can be another good time to have a script, so that couples who address that at a gathering can be ready and prepared for what’s coming.

Run interference

A lot of partners are actually willing to be supportive of their neurodiverse partner’s challenges in social situations. They just don’t always know how they are supposed to help in these situations. 

This is another great space for couple codes. For example, if I squeeze your shoulder, I need a break. If I kiss your cheek, it means I’m leaving because I’ve met my window of tolerance and I want to go home and bring my body back down away from people. 

Being able to come up with a system where a neurodiverse partner may be able to help pull another person away from a conversation. If a triggering family member comes up to the neurodivergent partner, is the neurotypical partner able to intervene and help them out of a tough social situation. It’s helpful when you’re able to get the neurotypical partner onboard for some of those challenges.

Have an exit strategy

Another helpful tip for the holidays is having exit strategies. Sometimes we feel better going into social situations when we know where the exits are. That might mean getting to leave after an hour or taking separate cars so someone is able to leave early. Those are helpful plans to put in place so that they know they do have an exit.

Prioritize

A couple may wish to sit down and say, “This is the list of social and gathering things that we’re looking at doing during this timeframe” and then prioritize the top most important events. Decide on which ones would be best to go to as a couple, and which ones are less important. Make the season more doable and prioritize specific gatherings, and be sure they are okay for both partners. 

Schedule quiet and recovery time

After a social event, as a neurodiverse couple you may need the next day to spend time recovering. It may change what your Sunday is going to look like if that Saturday night event is going to happen for a neurodivergent person. It’s important to plan ahead for that, not be overwhelmed with too many events, and to prioritize quiet and recovery time. 

Try to keep a routine

Changes in routine can often be a challenge during the holiday season. Sometimes a neurodiverse person will really miss their work, because it is a place where they feel comfortable and accomplished, when they may not feel that way at home. They are able to hyperfocus at work, but at home they may not be as proficient or as interested in the tasks. 

Unfortunately, there is usually an increase in tasks that need to be done. People often have a lot of rituals around the holidays and for neurodivergent couples, this can feel overwhelming.

One of the things that can be done is a daily five-minute check-in routine. This is preferable right before bed or potentially earlier in the morning. During this time, what each partner does is identify three things that they want to get done during that day. 

What does my to do list look like? Is there anything that the relationship needs or the household needs? Then you can prioritize. 

Being able to have just a very brief check-in to both see what the other person’s day is like and then to prioritize what some of those things are can be a critical stress-reducing conversation for both of you.

Take a different perspective

One of the issues that’s pretty unique with those on the Autism spectrum is stronger loyalty to family of origin than to the family with their partner. The holidays are especially a time that this may show up a bit more. 

Sometimes there is even emotional injury from the neurodiverse partner’s family of origin toward the neurotypical spouse. The neurodivergent partner may not get why their neurotypical partner doesn’t want to be there. 

It’s important to take the other person’s perspective and say, “You know what? My mom definitely shouldn’t have said that to you” vs. “She’s my mom and I don’t see why you don’t want to go see her. It’s the holidays. We’re supposed to have dinner.”

Identify value systems

Value systems can be really different in a neurodiverse couple, especially around the holidays. 

The holidays may not be meaningful and useful to a neurodiverse person because of all the stress related to it. 

A neurotypical partner may have a very different value system around the holidays. Their priority of tasks may be very different. As a result, they may struggle a bit more with their neurodivergent partner having a different value system. 

Going to holiday gatherings and different parties may be enjoyable to the neurotypical partner. It means a lot to them and they don’t understand why it’s not important to their partner. You are two different people. You may have two different boundaries and experiences. It’s important to identify those value systems and what those differences mean to each of you.

A few reminders about neurodiversity

As you navigate the holidays together there are a few important things to keep in mind.

Sometimes neurotypical partners will see all of the adaptation and adjustment that they are making in order to have a happier relationship. It’s important to remember that often the neurodiverse partner is going to be making huge adjustments and adaptations in order to have a good relationship as well. 

Both of you will feel like you’re the ones working harder. It’s a given that you’ll be totally aware of all the adjustments you’ve had to make. However, you may not be as sensitive or acutely aware of all the adjustments that your partner has had to make. 

The holidays can be a tricky time for most people, and especially for those in neurodivergent couples. Those that are neurodivergent may need extra support during this season and it can be important for their partner to recognize this and help however they can. So take some of these tips and enjoy this special time of year in each other’s company and if you need extra support, reach out to our team.

Catherine Pfuntner


Catherine is a Marriage and Family Therapist and has over 13 years of mental health experience . She currently sees couples at Couples Therapy Inc. using EFT and Gottman Method approaches. Catherine specializes in working with neurodiverse couples and is a certified discernment counselor.

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