FESTIVITIES AND NEURODIVERSITY – CELEBRATING INCLUSION IN
Atharva held his mothers’ hands nervously. He had faint memories of last years’ Diwali, like a
faint reminder of something barely recognizable anymore, and yet enough to instill fear in his
young mind. He looked uncomfortable in his new shervani. His lips pursed; eyes wide open in fear
of the next alarming sound of a firecracker.
And just on cue a series of crackers burst with a deafening sound. Atharva locked his ears behind
his little palms, his forehead shrinking as he pressed his palms against his earlobes. He wanted to
go back to bed, curl under the blanket. But his parents were not allowing him the luxury of a
choice. Not on Diwali.
“Atharva,” he heard his father’s grave, commanding voice. “Come on. Let’s go out.”
He slouched out of the bed dejectedly. He was too young to have his say, and old enough to be
forced into social niceties.
Just as he held his fathers’ hands, another barrage of crackers burst. Atharva’s lips curled into a
silent cry as his father continued to walk, blissfully unaware of how uncomfortable his son was.
He smiled as he looked at his son, confident that he would be dazzled by the visuals of an anar or
But as they walked out, the sparkling visuals made Atharva close his eyes. The colors hurt his
eyes, sending a ripple of ache into his brain. He cried timidly, losing his voice against elders
talking to each other with a wide grin on their face. He tried to sneak his palm out of his fathers’
large fingers, but could not.
Petrified of the next loud sound, and the flickering, designer lights that hit his head like a
rampaging hammer, Atharva vaguely noticed a familiar figure coming close to them. It was their
next-door neighbor, a woman with a painfully screeching voice (or so he felt), who seemed to
press against people a little too tightly when hugging them.
Atharva looked alarmed as she came towards her parents. His parents, though, did not seem to
mind it. They greeted her excitedly, as Atharva tried to hide behind his parents’ towering presence.
He closed his eyes as the woman’s shimmering attire blinded him for a second or two.
Just when he feels as though she would leave him unnoticed, the woman spots him behind his
fathers’ trousers. She gallops at him threateningly, holding him by his sleeves with a wide grin on
her face. She pulled him closer before yelling on his face, “Happy Diwali, beta!”
Atharva felt her voice hitting him like a torrential gust of wind slapping his face. He wanted to ask
her to let him loose, but his mouth went dry as he tried to speak. He mumbled inaudibly, before
feeling the touch of her hands loosening against his skin. A few moments of quiet, before his
parents walk towards her home. Atharva, still clasping his father’s hand, is forced to follow him
even as his face turns white in fear. No! his mind tries to snap into a protest but his lips remain
They walk in to find a living-room lit with multiple lights. Their power blinds Atharva, but
everyone else – including that woman’s eleven-year-old son – seem to be fine with the lights.
They sit, and before Atharva could whisper his protest to his parents the woman comes with a tray
full of sweets.
The smell of oil kisses his nostrils, making him frown. He looks at the plate and sees gujhiya. He
is reminded of how the smell of it makes him want to vomit. But he remains quiet. The woman
pushes the tray towards him. His parents look at him expectantly, not in the mood to see their son
creating a scene.
Atharva takes a gujhiya reluctantly. He takes a small bite of it, the smell of oil almost choking him
now. He wants to vomit it out, but he keeps the mouthful inside, slowly, painfully letting it slip
into his esophagus. He wants to run outside, curl back into his bed, but his parents continue to sit.
A part of him wants to run away, but he knows the firecrackers that await him there. There is no
escape; no solace in an evening like this. He looks at the faces around him – happy, joyous, and all
Atharva could think of was how he desperately wanted the day evening to end. That was he could
think about in that moment. That was all he thought about till the last sound of a firecracker a few
minutes after midnight.
For a young child who is struggling to understand the world as it exists for them, the barrage of
festivals during the latter half of the year could be quite demanding, both emotionally and
mentally. Children with neurodiversity are often left to feel confused, and vulnerable in a world
that is not ideally designed to accommodate and understand their needs.
Their twinkle-eyed fear of everything that disturbs them – everything assumed by others to be
normal – finds a deeper, fiercer presence during the festive season. Little nuances that these
festivals are designed around can be a major cause of concern for neurodiverse kids, impacting
their experience of these festivities.
People with neurodiversity can often be very sensitive to little changes around them. As a kid, this
heightened sensitivity can be confounding. Elders, who come mostly from an assumption of
neurotypicality as the only truth around them, are unable to understand the little hints of
discomfort that could be visible to them.
This can often result in these kids being forced into situations that only worsen their anxiety, and
discomfort. Little things like the flickering bright lights, smell of a certain edible product, social
interactions, and disturbingly loud firecrackers, are just a few things that neurotypicals assume to
be the norm around a festival, but can be a concerning factor for neurodiverse people.
For kids, especially, the option to refuse is tougher. There is an inclination by parents (who come
from a space of unawareness regarding their child’s neurodiversity) to force their kids into
activities, in fear of them becoming the odd-one-out where other kids their age.
The lack of agency that a neurodiverse kid has worsens the experience of these festivals for them.
So, instead of moulding things in a way that incorporates the needs of neurodiverse people, these
kids are forced to not only accept, but also embrace the way these festivals are celebrated
This makes for an uncomfortable, often distasteful experiences for neurodiverse people, bringing
them dangerously close to a breakdown. For kids, especially, their genuine concerns are erased as
pampered behaviour. This communication gap makes it tougher for a child to explain the physical,
emotional, and psychological hindrances that they are facing.
Often, this means that they go through the entire drill, terrified, but unable to give words to their
worries. Their experience of a festival – and in extension memories of these experiences as an
adult – make the very dawn of their arrival a fearful prospect. The inability of the world around
them to be more understanding of their needs, and a little flexible with their methods, isolates
them in what is essentially a day of coming together as a community.
The answer lies in being a little patient, and understanding the concerns neurodiverse people have
with certain elements of festivals. It is important to be attentive to their needs, and accepting of
manoeuvring in a way that makes festivals inclusive for all. Little details, like non-flickering lights
to comfort their visual sensory, to ask for consent before a friendly hug, and having special zones
for crackers that are distanced from housing society, and allowing someone the basic luxury to say
no to a food item.
As we move ahead, trying to make our festivals more inclusive, we need to start asking
neurodiverse people for what they would prefer. Each individual will differ in their concerns, and
each needs to be treated with the respect of that space where they can give words to their
This especially needs to be done with kids who are assumed to not know enough about themselves.
To ask them what they are comfortable with, and changing the surroundings accordingly is not too
tough. All it takes is to ask, to be more inclusive in our celebration of festivals; all it takes is to
hear to know if a person is uncomfortable with a part of the festivals’ rituals.
By Rachit Raj
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