The holiday season can be a time of excitement, joy and celebration. But for some Autistic people, it can sometimes be stressful and overwhelming. We believe that everyone should get to enjoy the festive season in a way that’s inclusive of their wants and needs. That’s why we asked seven Autistic people for their top tips to help both Autistic people and their families make this festive season a great time for everyone.
Here’s what they had to say:
Top tips: Practise self-compassion and try to enjoy events in your ways.
As a nonspeaking Autistic person, with additional communication and support needs, my huge sensory processing, movement and anxiety issues work overtime under pressure. Although I value the connection with people, especially the fantastic energy during the holiday season, this can also become a minefield with sensory assaults translating to overload and panic attacks with just about every encounter.
For Autistic people with challenges like mine, it’s essential to undertake extra self-compassion at Christmas and New Year gatherings, and to give ourselves permission to self-regulate with whatever strategies we find useful, even if these are considered unusual. Prioritise our own needs may mean just becoming a participant-observer and doing our best to enjoy the event in our own ways, rather than worrying about blending in.
As with all situations, our sense of control is the key to navigating the social minefield to avoid any unforeseen incidents. For family, friends and other social networks, it’s okay to let people know that we may prefer to be in a relatively quiet space, and only connect with others when we choose to. In the end, our equilibrium, mental well-being and sanity should come first.
Top tips: Ask questions about functions ahead of time and remember you can leave whenever you want.
For Autistic people…
Don’t feel like you must attend or participate in anything. If we have learnt anything over the last few years, it’s about consent. If you are interested in attending something, don’t feel afraid to ask questions so you can make an informed decision. You can ask questions like:
And remember you can leave anytime you want – your time is valuable, and you should spend it during this time doing things you enjoy.
Don’t expect anything from your loved ones and appreciate anything that is given from them (Autistic or not). It’s been a whirlwind of a few years and people’s capacity will vary.
Consider making time to see loved ones in alternative settings than the traditional. For example, see a movie or have a nap together – rest and recharge is a great gift.
Top tips: Schedule breaks, understand that not everyone responds the same to gifts and be understanding of food sensitivities.
Please schedule sensory breaks between (or during) social gatherings. We need this down time to regulate our brains and nervous systems, in much the same way that you place your mobile phone on charge to ensure it can ‘keep going’.
Please understand that giving and receiving gifts tends to make us feel awkward! We are never quite sure how to react and might present a blank face or seem indifferent even if we are pleased with the gift. Or we might be upset if a gift is not what we were hoping for. We don’t mean to appear ungrateful; we just need a little time to adapt to this change from what we had been anticipating.
Please be understanding of our food sensitivities. We can see you have made a lot of effort to cook a variety of enticing food, but the plain buttered roll is comforting to us because it is familiar and predictable. We are not worried about ‘missing out’ on fruit mince pies or turkey.
Top tips: pick an ‘ally’ to advocate on your behalf and families and friends, please don’t expect specific reactions from us.
For Autistic people…
Holidays and gatherings are always overwhelming and tiring, so giving yourself permission to do whatever it is you need to do to feel comfortable is really important.
Something I do is: pick an ‘ally’!
Something you should do: Don’t expect certain ‘reactions’ from us.
Top tips: space out your social engagements and remember the holidays are meant to be fun, and that looks different for everyone.
Holiday season brings up complicated feelings for me, of grief, trauma, and joy. It’s hard to navigate, and it’s hard to distance myself from it given all the social engagements and parties that I do want to go to, but find quite exhausting sometimes.
As a tip to navigate these feelings, I usually bring a safe person with me, or go to parties where my safe people are also invited. I also try to remember that holidays are meant to be fun, and fun can look different for people. I also carry my noise-cancelling earphones everywhere so I can control sensory overloads.
I also space out my social engagements, and fill the time in between big social events with painting, reading or organising my stationery – I call it spoon replenishment! Personal shame? I love the Netflix Christmas cinematic universe – it is my one true solace from the chaotic pressure of the holiday season.
Top tips: Friends and families, please provide the option to opt-out of events and don’t restrict access to comfort/safe foods.
This may seem obvious, but Autistic people are NOT any less Autistic during the holiday season. We cannot flick a switch and become neurotypical while the relatives invade our safe space. Just like every other day, Autistic people will need regular breaks from the hustle and bustle of holiday gatherings. It is important to encourage alone time breaks rather than unintentionally shaming them for being rude or antisocial on the special day.
Provide the Autistic person in your life with an opt-in / opt-out choice around all aspects of holiday activities and gatherings. It may be the best time of the year for some, but for Autistic people the holiday season is full of stress and changes in routine. Given the heightened changes and stressors Autistic people can be more prone to meltdowns, shutdowns, and burnout.
Ask your family and friends not to expect or force hugs, kisses, photos, or interaction. And don’t restrict the usual comfort foods for sensory triggering festive foods. Enable the things that you know allows the Autistic person in your life to thrive and enjoy the holiday season. And advocate for them when you can see boundaries are being crossed.
Top tips: Take time for self-care and don’t be afraid to self-advocate!
My advice as an autistic young adult for surviving the upcoming holidays is to take care of yourself no matter what anyone else says. If that means taking time out in a quiet space away from people or ignoring everyone then do it, or if that means using things like noise-cancelling headphones or fidget toys then do it, but don’t be apologetic about taking care of yourself as you are the most important thing.
I find people can get so wrapped in the holidays and forget that they need to adapt traditions or arrangements to suit everyone and not just the typical majority.
Another bit of advice is to speak up and advocate for yourself! I always discover myself having to be my strongest advocate during the holiday season as I my needs aren’t asked about at all or they do ask me and become completely forgotten or lost in the hustle and bustle of the period.
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