“It’s the most wonderful time of the year
With the kids jingle belling
And everyone telling you be of good cheer
It’s the most wonderful time of the year”
Well, at least for some people. The “most wonderful time of the year” isn’t wonderful and magical for everybody. For autistic people especially, the holidays can drive much more overload and stress than joy and excitement. Just take a look at the verse from the classic holiday tune “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” Kids jingle belling? That sounds like the perfect set of conditions for massive sensory overload. Everyone telling you to be of good cheer? I’d rather they not. My body language does not always match my intentions, and it makes me anxious when I feel like I have to try and fake some particular mood or ritual because when I do it wrong people sometimes get mad at me or misunderstand me. Most wonderful time? Maybe not.
I’m just trying to get my point across here, I’m really not trying to be a grinch or a scrooge! Of course the holiday season can (and should) be wonderful, but very often cultural expectations and traditions can turn the holidays into a nightmare for people who think, feel, and interact differently. So, this post is dedicated to some suggestions of how to make the holidays less stressful for the autistic people in your life. Simply because of the nature of this sort of post this will be written largely for parents or guardians of autistic children, but these same sorts of strategies are useful for autistic people of any age, and if you yourself are autistic I hope this post can give you some ideas on how to make the holidays easier on yourself.
Be Flexible with your Expectations
As I identified in my last post, much of what can make a special occasion, such as a holiday, overwhelming for an autistic person like myself is an adherence to traditional expectations that surround that event above what is most workable and comfortable for those involved. Take Christmas, the most widely celebrated winter holiday in many parts of the world, as an example. What expectations are there around the way that Christmas is *supposed* to be celebrated? Children are expected to get up in the morning and gleefully open their wrapped presents. It is expected that immediate family will gather together and that everyone will exchange the correct set of social pleasantries before sitting down for a meal of specific prescribed foods. There is also the expectation of putting up the correct decorations, sending out Christmas cards, taking exhausting Christmas photos, and a myriad of other potentially stressful events.
Friends, it is these sorts of expectations, the idea that an event has to be commemorated in a specific way, that often make it difficult for autistic people. As usual, just a little bit of accommodation can go a long way in making the holidays a bit more wonderful for everybody. I experienced this recently on Thanksgiving, a holiday which is celebrated in the USA on the fourth Thursday of November. For a long time Thanksgiving to me was “the food-from-hell holiday” because there is traditionally a specific set of foods that are served on Thanksgiving, and because I’m a specific sensory eater there are very few Thanksgiving foods that I can tolerate. Over the past few years my family and I have just decided to forego a meal entirely of Thanksgiving food and instead be open to items that I can tolerate, which has made the holiday more accessible for me because it meant I could eat more than just dinner roles.
If my family instead held to the expectation that specific Thanksgiving foods must be eaten on Thanksgiving then the holiday would continue to be difficult, but instead being open to making a little change went a long way. There is no law that says you must eat only turkey, stuffing, and mashed potatoes on Thanksgiving, and there are no laws that say you have to partake in any particular tradition on any given day. Therefore, understand that the biggest key to supporting autistic people through stressful holidays is to simply be open to making changes and accommodations and not feeling pressured by societal expectations. Since COVID is causing many people to have to change their expectations around the holidays this year, I hope that if anything good can come from this it is that people realize that it’s ok to change things up a bit.
So, what specific accommodations could be made to make the holidays a bit less stressful for autsitic people? Well, that varies based on the person and on the holiday in question, but in this post I will focus on Christmas, as it is perhaps the most widely celebrated winter holiday and many aspects of Christmas are similar to other holidays, and so these suggestions should be easy to adapt.
Keep a balanced sensory diet
Sensory diet refers to the totality of sensory input that our brains receive throughout the day. It is important to have a balanced sensory diet in order to stay regulated, having the correct amount of the correct forms of input to avoid both becoming overwhelmed and being understimulated. For autistic people this window can be very narrow. It is especially difficult for autistic people to maintain a balanced sensory diet during the holiday season. Bright Christmas lights can be painfully bright and visually overwhelming, holiday events and parties (post-pandemic) can kick a sensory system into overdrive, and the changes in routine can make it difficult to self-manage our sensory systems.
This is why it’s extra important during this time of year to be extra careful about regulating sensory input to avoid potential overwhelm. If you are not autistic, realize that autistic people may experience things more intensely than you do and so you can’t rely on your own perception to figure out what is overwhelming and what is not. Prioritize the communication (remember, behavior is always communication) of the autistic person in question to try and avoid overload. In general, limit or cut out extraneous overwhelming events. There’s no rule that says that kids have to sit on Mall Santa’s lap, and if activities like these are causing more distress and overwhelm then genuine enjoyment, then remove them from your holiday plans. Take events slowly. Many autistic people may require days, yes days, of down time after a single one-hour activity to adequately decompress and fully re-regulate our systems.
Redesign gift opening to suit your needs
Receiving gifts is probably many people’s favorite part of the winter holidays. However, the ritual of receiving gifts can be difficult for many autistic people because it can be emotionally overwhelming and often a particular social performance is expected of the gift receiver, which can be anxiety-inducing when your body doesn’t express your feelings in typical ways.
My suggestion is to drop all expectations about reacting a specific way or having the right body language or saying the right thing. Actually, expecting that autistic people perform all the time to appear neurotypical is harmful always, never do that, but it’s especially important surrounding receiving gifts over the holidays. Autistic people communicate differently and have trouble navigating neurotypical social rituals, and so it really isn’t fair to expect us to do so. Don’t read negative connotations into our body language (for example, “oh they’re so ungrateful” or “wow, they’re being really rude by not saying thank you right away” or “oh no, they don’t like their gift).” We really do communicate differently, and we’re already managing a lot of stress and overwhelm at this time of year. It isn’t helpful to expect us to do something we’re not wired to do.
If opening gifts is overwhelming for someone in your family, don’t be concerned about opening them all up at one time the morning-of. Take as many breaks as you need to, turn opening presents into an all-day (or all week!) affair, if that’s what it takes to keep everyone calm and regulated. If the process of opening presents is overwhelming you might try not wrapping gifts and instead just giving them as-is when they would otherwise be opened. This removes a lot of the anxiety surrounding the anticipation of opening a gift that can be overwhelming. If anxiety surrounding waiting is a big struggle you could try not putting out gifts under the tree or equivalent until the morning-of or planning to give a gift or two a few days or weeks early to abate some of that anxiety.
This also falls under the category of “social expectations.” Very often children are expected to give hugs to their relatives (again, post-COVID on this one) even if they child in question is anxious about doing so. I don’t think it’s appropriate to expect anybody to hug someone if they do not want to, but especially for autistic people who may be touch sensitive it is important not to force on someone the expectation that they must hug or make physical contact with someone else. Of course this can be overloading for an already-overwhelmed autistic just due to the sensory nature of touch, but t also his falls under the category of bodily autonomy, and by forcing someone to hug someone else despite their discomfort teaches them that they are not allowed to say “no” to someone who wants to touch their body. Obviously, this can lead to some pretty serious problems down the line. Same line of reasoning applies if a child does not want to sit on a stranger’s lap to take Mall Santa photos. Do not force anybody to make physical contact with anybody else. It can be overwhelming and stressful, yes, but it also sends the message that others have a right to touch you despite your feelings against it.
Make Eating Easier
I ask that everyone still reading up until this point also consider reading a post I have already written on sensory eating (click here!) at some point. This topic is of major importance during the holiday season, as the holidays involve lots of sensory-unfriendly foods. But there are things that can be done to make holiday dinners easier on sensory eaters. The most obvious of these is to make sure there is food available that can be tolerated by the person in question. Don’t get hung up on making everyone eat traditional holiday foods, there is no law that says everyone must only cook a Thanksgiving turkey or a Christmas roast. It’s more important that everyone is comfortable and happy.
Also, don’t get hung up on “table manners” or anything of the like. Another piece of advice that falls into the “don’t expect an exhausting and stressful social performance out of an autistic person” category, I hope you are noticing a theme here. It’s really not helpful to be constantly reminded to follow arbitrary rules we don’t notice or understand, in fact it’s infuriating and stressful as all get out. Again, it’s already a stressful time of the year, let us be our natural selves, we aren’t hurting anything other than maybe an ultimately meaningless set of neurotypical social conventions. It’s more important to be calm, regulated, and happy than to eat a certain way.
Anxiety can look like many things. Anxiety can look like anger. It can look like depression. It can look like overstimulation. It can look like being “bossy” or “rude.” But it’s all still anxiety, and it’s all still a sign of distress. Remember to keep calm and not take anything personally, and remember that attempting to reprimand or punish a response to anxiety will only make things worse! Ideally you should plan out your holidays to keep anxiety to a minimum, but unfortunately some is almost inevitable, so be prepared to recognize it (even hidden anxiety that doesn’t necessarily *look* like anxiety) and lower demands, expectations, and sensory input to help manage it.
I know this post was both long and vague at the same time, but I hope it’s given you some helpful thoughts on how to make the holidays easier for the autistic people in your life (or for yourself if you are autistic, never overlook the power of self advocacy!). If you have further questions you can always email me (check my “About” page!) It may not always be “the most wonderful time of the year” but ideally we can all be willing to change our expectations and make accommodations so the holiday season is a little bit more magical for everybody.