The Christmas party survival guide for your Autistic and ADHD colleagues

Kelly and Hester Grainger

Co-founders of Perfectly Autistic

It might be the most wonderful time of year for many, but when you are neurodivergent all the office celebrations, Christmas parties and Secret Santa surprises can just be too much.

Kelly and Hester Grainger, a neurodivergent husband and wife team are founders of Perfectly Autistic. The neurodiversity consultancy work with a host of organisations offering neurodiversity training, webinars and bespoke autism and ADHD workshops.

They have years of experience with different workplace cultures and have attended more workplace parties and events than you can shake a candy cane at. With both being neurodivergent; Kelly was diagnosed as autistic at 44 and with ADHD at 45, Hester was diagnosed with ADHD when she was 43, they understand the challenges that Christmas at work can bring.

Here they share some tips and strategies to help you get through the next few weeks.


The Office Christmas party

It’s been a tricky year, so companies are keener than ever to celebrate the last 12 months with their team. This often begins with an email inviting you to the office Christmas party. For some this brings joy, but for others the email notification can bring a sense of dread. If you are autistic or have ADHD, having ‘forced fun’ in the form of a Christmas party can all be too much.

The Christmas office party is occasionally held in the office, but more likely in a hotel, bar or restaurant. It can involve hundreds of people all in one large room (some companies hire tables at joint Christmas events, so you end up with lots of other companies), with loud music, intense smells and tons of chatter from various colleagues, who you may or may not want to talk to.

Dress to impress is open to so much misinterpretation

Then there is the dress code to manage. ‘Smart casual’ has to be the most confusing description ever. Or ‘dress to impress’. If you are autistic, you may think smart casual is an oxymoron. Dress to impress is open to so much misinterpretation. If you have ADHD you may end up going down a rabbit hole, panicking and searching for the dream outfit, only to find it all to overwhelming and deciding you don’t want to go.

A woman looks at a Christmas tree

Secret Santa

Secret Santa is another ‘fun’ workplace activity that can be overwhelming. A Secret Santa is where colleagues draw names either by picking a name out of a bowl or hat or using an online generator. Whichever name you choose, you then have to buy them a surprise present. If you are neurodivergent this can be incredibly stressful.

The pressure to buy someone you may not know very well a gift that they’ll like or use, sticking to a budget, and buying an ‘appropriate’ gift can feel all too much.

The pressure to know what to say or how to react can be too overwhelming

Then, there is the worry about how you’ll react when you receive your gift. At Christmas (with our two autistic children) we now have a deal where there is no pressure to provide an ‘appropriate reaction’ when receiving gifts. The pressure to know what to say or how to react can be too overwhelming for autistic people, or those with ADHD.

A person holds a Christmas present

Our top tips:

1 – Don’t make the Christmas party mandatory – Let people choose if they want to attend, and don’t pressure or ask people why they’ve declined the invite.

2 – Remove the dress code – Let’s just admit it now – no-one knows what smart casual actually means! By removing the dress code it ensures everyone wears what they feel comfortable in neurodivergent or not.

3 – Share the menu – make sure everyone has seen the menu before the party, so they know what to expect. Also give the option for people to arrive after the meal, in case it doesn’t have their safe foods available or if the sounds and smells of people eating are too much.

3 – Accessible – Make sure that there are quiet spaces at the event for anyone who finds it too much. Also make sure the venue is easy to get to providing clear detailed instructions and visuals so people know what to expect. That way if people want to attend for a short time, they can join in, but without having to spend a month’s wages getting a taxi home.

4 – Scrap Secret Santa! This may seem drastic, but with the cost-of-living crisis, do you really want to have to worry about buying Sue from Accounting a gift? It’s estimated that £42 million worth of unwanted Christmas presents end up in landfill each year, so why not just scrap it all together and remove the pressure of having to mask appreciation for a gift you wouldn’t have chosen for yourself.

5 – Donate to charity – If you want to keep it going, why not set a small limit and then each choose a charity to donate to instead? Then if people feel comfortable, they could share why they chose that particular charity – much more meaningful than beard baubles!

By making small adaptions will ensure that the festive season is more inclusive and enjoyable for all – neurodivergent or not.

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