Christmas (and other events) – how to make them more autistic friendly. Christmas cards often show happy family gatherings, families together. A time of year full of joy, happiness and games. Family coming together for a few days of harmony, no arguments or disagreements. Workplace parties, decorations up, food in departments, Secret Santas. At school cards and presents are given to school mates. A wonderful time of the year to get together.
Not necessarily for Autistic people, especially at work when it is perceived that attending Christmas parties is essential. Autistic people see, understand and interact with the world differently to others, and to each other, as they are all different. We can also struggle to fit in at school and work. I, like so many autistic people, had few friends at school, so I rarely received cards. Not nice.
The Christmas period, and the build up can be a time of high stress, with expectations from all sides, and potential criticism if you do not meet them. A time of overwhelm with lots of noise, lights, sounds, smells and movement especially parties and pub events. And for those with intolerances and allergens, foods all round to be eaten with care or not at all. Any signs of stress resulting in you being accused of spoiling events for other.
A time to change routine, lose downtime, mask, act to fit in. Relief when it is over. So you can recharge batteries.
At least that is how it is how I have interpreted it too often. Presents – my idea of what I want, not always accepted by others, thinking instead what others would want to buy I could like, buy what I really wanted myself often. Christmas cards are how I communicate with some friends, once a year.
As a child I learnt to put into place rules to cope, do what was expected. Mask, look happy how was expected. Once Christmas, I was told I had spoilt things for others as I had developed a stress headache and needed time to lie down and chill. Once thank you cards were done (done to a learnt acceptable format) I could relax.
In short, rather than finding it relaxing, and energising me prior to starting work again, it was exhausting. A return to work and routine was often quite welcome. Just say the required small talk after Christmas and that was the end.
In this article having explained the causes of stress I will provide some ideas to help reduce the stress before, during and after Christmas. In short allowing Autistic people to feel able to relax, be themselves and enjoy it, within an accepted format. I will also provide hints to help others to understand how to help autistic people.
- Advocate for your needs – to avoid a meltdown/ shutdown
- Don’t tell yourself you are to blame – for your all your reactions. Talk to yourself kindly.
- Downtime – find space either in your room, outside or toilet if nowhere else can help. Even a little time out really helps.
- Take a hobby or fidget toys, or similar – maybe that is small, convenient. This will help calm you. Personally, I love jigsaws or puzzles.
- Job list – Make a list of jobs to do in advance – pace yourself. If you don’t have the energy and you don’t need to do it, don’t beat yourself up.
- Christmas cards – do in batches, according to priority, do printed letters, it saves time.
- Overseas Contacts – Send by email, if you have missed the deadline, send letter anyway, if they need the letter. I have many contacts, not all expect a card.
- Thank you cards – do as soon as possible.
Attitudes of others
- Being open – Understanding your needs, reactions, likes and dislikes, asking, rather than blaming you for not reacting ‘correctly’.
- Routine – explain what is needed if required.
- Support – Find from someone you can trust.
- After Christmas – and all the required post Christmas jobs do what you like until you have recovered.
Family members/ Friends/ Mentors
- Sulking/ Tantrums – no Shutdowns/Meltdowns – are a form of communication indicating a state of overwhelm. Treating them as attention seeking is wrong, and may just drive stress further down, as needs are not felt acceptable.
- Time out, personal space – allowing this can be essential to management of energy and emotions, even just for short periods. I have found that doing a craft allows a mental time out, where physical time out is discouraged.
- Planning of time – Not everyone likes doing everything together, all the time. Giving advanced warning of activities, (ie when the main meal is, going for a walk will give time to prepare, move from one activity to another), allowing space to recharge, prepare. And to relax, rather than feeling the need to be on alert.
Attitudes of others
- Masking – Autistic people mask/act to fit in a lot to fit in. It is exhausting. Accept you may not get the expected response, and there will be less acting to prevent negative responses.
- Routine – where required stick to this as much as possible.
- Accepting different needs – not everyone likes doing the same activity together all the time. It may look good at gatherings but may not be genuine, just behaviours learnt. Accepting that whilst there are times for this at events allowing others to do their own thing can help autistic people to relax.
- Accepting changes – ‘Traditional’ Christmas’s and parties can be changed, or options made. Big company dos and parties do not need to be big noisy affairs. It may be possible to have a quiet space for those needing a break, reducing stress.
Christmas, parties and family gatherings can be very stressful for many, especially autistic people, due to the expectations and demands. By considering how to make them ‘friendlier’ will reduce this stress, not only for them but others. I hope the article in this article helps.