It’s December, and for many people, that means it’s time to get ready for Christmas. The holiday season is in full swing. For many people, this is a fun and happy time. For some autistic people, though, it can be difficult.
Non-autistic people may not understand why their autistic friends or family members have a hard time at Christmas. This can cause difficulty if an autistic person doesn’t want to attend a particular holiday party or has a hard time at a family gathering. Let me try to explain some things that an autistic person might have trouble with at Christmas time.
First, many autistic people have routines. We like our routines. During the holiday period, routines tend to be disrupted. Those who have jobs will probably have at least a few days off between Christmas and New Year’s Day. While most people enjoy having time off work, it can be disruptive to somebody who likes their routine. Add to this the fact that many things we’re used to doing might be cancelled or have their dates and times changed. A coffee shop where you’re used to getting your morning coffee might be closed on Christmas Day. If you have friends you get together with on a regular basis, they might go out of town for a holiday, or they might have family coming to visit, and they may not be able to see you. Even a simple thing like always doing your grocery shopping on the same day of the week may not be possible if the store is closed that day, or the stores might be more crowded and busy than usual due to people doing their Christmas shopping, which triggers anxiety for many people. Having our routines disrupted can throw us completely off balance.
Then there is shopping. Online shopping has, fortunately, helped with this, but if you don’t have a credit card to do your shopping with, or the item you want isn’t available online, then you probably will have to brave the shopping mall. Shopping malls can be unpleasant to autistics at the best of times; they’re a hundred times worse during Christmas shopping season. They’re crowded, noisy, and hot. If you’ve bundled up for cold winter weather outside, you’ll be melting once you get into that crowded mall. As I said, crowds can be big triggers for people with anxiety, and that includes autistic people.
Holiday parties are traditional at this time of year, and many of us on the spectrum have trouble with them. Loud music, unfamiliar people, unfamiliar food, alcohol, and small talk combine to become an autistic’s worst nightmare. Autistic children may be expected to let unfamiliar relatives hug and kiss them. Autistic adults may feel obligated to sit and make awkward small talk with people they barely know. Someone who was diagnosed (or self-diagnosed) later in life may have a family that is unfamiliar with autism who may not accept the diagnosis. Family mealtimes may be awkward if the autistic person is on a special diet, for example gluten-free or casein-free, especially if the person has been on that diet for only a short time. Other autistics have trouble with certain food textures, which can be hard to explain to those who are not on the spectrum.
How can we make the holiday season easier?
We probably can’t do anything about businesses that are closed or friends who are travelling or having people visit them. We can’t change the atmosphere of a shopping mall. But there are things we can do.
First, find out who will be available during the holiday season if you need somebody to talk to. If you have an autistic friend or sympathetic non-autistic ally, talk to them before the stressful time starts and ask if they will be around to accept a phone call, a text message or an e-mail from you. Those who are out of town might be able to stay in touch by e-mail, but don’t pin all your hopes on it. If none of your local friends are available, talk your your online friends. For many of us, our online friends are indeed our “real” friends, and ideally there will be somebody around during the holiday season to lend some virtual support, even if they can’t be there in person.
If you have shopping to do, you may be able to do it online if you don’t have a credit card. Some online merchants accept PayPal or online debit/Interac, and many banks now offer prepaid “credit” cards that you can use to shop online without going into debt. If you absolutely have to shop in person, do it before the rush starts (before American Black Friday) if you can. If you can’t, try shopping early in the morning or late at night. Some locations of Wal-Mart stay open 24 hours a day in the holiday season, and it’s less likely to be busy in the middle of the night. If having somebody with you makes things easier, try to enlist a friend or supportive family member to go with you. See if you can identify a place in the shopping centre that is less crowded where you can go if you get overwhelmed. If you or the person you are shopping with has a vehicle, you could go sit in the vehicle to recover.
Holiday parties. Some people like them. Some don’t. If you’re one of the ones who doesn’t, it may be best to just skip them. If you can’t — for example, it’s a work-related party — then try to plan some survival strategies ahead of time. Don’t get drunk. One or two drinks to help you relax are okay, but alcohol can make you do stupid things, so keep a limit on how much you consume.
Find out if there’s a place you can escape to if the party gets to be too much, even if it’s just the bathroom. Offer to help prepare and/or clean up so you can hide out in the kitchen. Ask politely if the volume of the music can be turned down. Say that it makes it hard to talk if it’s too loud. (It’s the truth!) If you’re on a special diet and are worried that you won’t be able to find food that fits your diet, eat something ahead of time so that you’re not hungry, or find out if you can bring your own food.
Small talk is the bane of our autistic existence, but it has to be done. There are some safe topics for small talk, such as the weather, a local sports team, people’s pets and children, or job-related topics if it’s a work event. Start working on this before it gets to be holiday party time. Make mental notes (or if you can do it surreptitiously, notes on your phone or on a piece of paper) about the people you work with. Who has kids, and are they boys or girls? Who has a dog or a cat? Who went on a trip recently? Ask open-ended questions. Instead of, “Do you have any plans for the holiday?” ask something like, “What are your plans for the holiday?” A tip: talking about the other person is almost always welcome. If somebody is wearing a particular piece of jewelry or scarf or tie, complimenting them on it is a good ice-breaker.
When it comes to our families, sometimes we just have to deal with them. Don’t force kids to hug and kiss people they barely know. Don’t feel obligated to do it yourself. Small talk rules work on relatives too, as do compliments. If you’re on a special diet, ideally, your family will know. If they don’t, contact the host ahead of time and let them know.
If you think you may have to leave the party before it’s over, try arranging a signal with somebody who’s not at the party/family gathering so that they can call or text you and give you an excuse to leave.
Holidays are supposed to be happy times, but even non-autistic people have trouble with them. You’re not alone. I hope that we all have good holidays and a great new year.