The holiday season is to many people, the happiest time of the year. A time to go celebrate, exchange presents, and visit family.
However, for an autistic person, the holiday season can be an incredibly stressful time, especially when not planned out right.
But why is that?
You may be aware that autistic people are very accustomed to routines, and often do not like a sudden change to their schedule. This is because we generally have a mental schedule in our heads of how our days will go, almost like a TV schedule. When suddenly something changes, it throws off our whole schedule as we try and readjust things, and that can be scary for us.
During Christmas, there are a lot of changes our minds have to adjust to. Suddenly shops are closing earlier in preparation, people are visiting without prior warning, and we have to readjust what we’re doing to accommodate Christmas traditions such as meals, masses etc.
Similar to how autistic people may struggle to cope with routine changes, we often also struggle to cope with an unexpected surprise.
Imagine you’re just walking along the street, and then someone just hands you a bag, which is strange enough. Then they’re waiting and looking at you as they expect you to open the bag. Once you’ve opened it, you’re just staring at confusion over these socks, and why you’ve been given them. To make matters worse, suddenly the person is becoming inexplicably angry at you, saying you’re ungrateful for what they’ve done.
This can be how it feels for an autistic person when opening presents in the morning. They don’t know what they’re going to get, which is scary enough, but they’re expected to show gratitude for the gift, no matter what it is.
NOISE AND CROWDS
Autistic people process senses differently to neurotypical people. What may seem normal and fine to most people can be a complete nightmare for autistics.
I, for example, struggle to cope in busy town centres with lots of people, because I can’t filter out the noise without the aid of headphones or ear defenders, and because everyone is walking everywhere, I can’t figure out where people are going to be walking, which makes it incredibly difficult for me to walk around them.
The increased crowds of Christmas also come with a lot more visual things to process. Christmas stalls, Christmas adverts, posters, merchandise, clothes.
When I was younger, my mum would have to keep me on a harness because I was so distracted by everything around me that I couldn’t filter out, and it just kept causing me to freeze and/or walk slowly.
Take it from me when I say that unexpected social gatherings can be absolute hell for us! In addition to all the noise and crowds as mentioned above, we’re expected to converse and interact with a bunch of people we may not even know with, or feel comfortable talking to. For autistic people, it takes a lot of effort to be able to socialise in noisy areas with a lot of people, and we may feel completely exhausted by the end of it.
Additionally, a lot of autistic people find it hard to continue conversations, and maintain eye contact. If we have to focus on keeping a conversation, staring at someone’s eyes, and trying to filter out noise, it heightens the risk of an autistic meltdown.
HOW YOU CAN HELP
Whilst Christmas can be a stressful time of year to autistic people, there are things you can do to help make things easier.
1. Allow them to open presents in their own time:
Don’t pressure them to open them if they’re not ready. Give them time to process it all, and let them choose!
2. If they prefer it this way, leave the presents unwrapped:
Sometimes an autistic person may not like having their gifts wrapped because they don’t know what’s under the paper. Remember, there’s no harm in leaving them unwrapped if your kid, partner or relative wishes, as they’ll still be getting the same gifts!
3. Don’t force them to eat food they’re not comfortable with:
Autistic people often like to have similar foods for each meal. If they’re not likely to eat what’s usually prepared for Christmas dinner, see if you can make something they’ll be more comfortable with
4. Allow them to escape to somewhere quiet in family gatherings:
Autistic people can find social situations very stressful, as mentioned above. Let them know they’re free to go somewhere quiet, or put on headphones, if they’ll be happier this way. It’s not worth putting them through this if they’re not going to be happy!
5. Be calm:
One of the most important things is to be calm and understanding. If they’re experiencing something that you don’t understand, don’t question it. Let them know they can trust to tell you if they’re facing any issues
6. Talk to them
This might seem like the most obvious step, but sometimes the best way to find out how to help the person is to ask them directly what would make things easier for them. Remember, not all autistic people are the same, and what may work for one autistic person, may not always work for another.