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7 Tips to Cope With the Holidays When You're Autistic

A Personal Perspective: Planning ahead can help you meet your autistic needs.

Key points

  • Autistic adults often struggle with their mental health and well-being during the holiday period.
  • Social demands, sensory overload, and disruptions to routine can cause high levels of anxiety.
  • Planning in advance can help minimize your stress levels.
  • You have a right to experience the festive period in a way that is right for you.

Whatever your faith or culture, this time of year often involves cultural festivities of some kind. For many autistic people, it’s the most stressful time of year. Having strategies in place can help minimise anxieties and exhaustion—and focusing on these key areas can help you get started.

1. Find a social balance.

Socialising can be extremely difficult for autistic adults—yet many kinds of festivities inevitably come with socialising. There are some situations we likely can't just turn down or avoid.

However, there might be ways we can lessen the amount of time we spend socialising and the impact it has. Can you, for example, skip out on your work party? Can you shorten your stay with your in-laws?

It's all about finding a balance that allows you to stay mentally and physically well. Autistic people tend to see things in a black-and-white manner, but finding a compromise in how much you socialise can help reduce stress.

Identify things which help you stay calm and give you some much-needed time alone—whether that's taking a walk, reading a book, or indulging in your favourite hobby. Make other people aware that you need some time out in order to be able to enjoy their company.

Josh Hild, Unsplash
Josh Hild, Unsplash

2. Plan for sensory disruptions.

Some autistic people find the sensory impact of decorations, music, food—in short, everything which hallmarks most festivities—way too much to cope with. (On the other hand, some autistic people are sensory-seeking and absolutely love all of the above!)

If your living room feels uninhabitable because of all the mess which is strewn across the walls and floors, is it possible to have one space that doesn’t get taken over? Planning in advance by tidying your bedroom, for example—perhaps even buying some nice comfort items and making sure no presents, decorations, or stray pieces of tinsel find their way in there—can help.

Outside of the house, things which are usually manageable can start to feel horrific. Heaving trains, crowded shopping centres, cafes with people spilling out of the doors—not nice!

Accepting that December, in particular, is likely to be different from every other month is a starting point. That means you can organise your life differently. Think about taking a break from the things you usually do if it causes too much sensory overload at this time of year. Shopping-wise, what can you get delivered?

3. Maintain your routine.

Having your routine knocked for six can be one of the worst things about the festive period. Whether it’s people staying with you, you staying in someone else’s space, or attending festivities or social events, this is a time when change and disruption are more common than ever. Yet it can be difficult for neurotypical people to understand just how impactful it is not to be able to exercise, work, or clean your house at your usual time and in your usual way.

Some people find it helpful to maintain an element of their usual routine if possible. If you can take some time for meditation, walking, watching your favourite show, or listening to music—especially if you can do this at your usual time—it might help you feel in control in the midst of the mayhem.

What also helps is creating “space” in the middle of disruption. Reminding yourself that you’ll only be somewhere for two days, or that your usual routine is disrupted for the weekend and you can get back to normal after that, can help you cope with what is a temporary change.

4. Ditch the guilt.

People can be very ready to shame others for “not getting into the spirit.” When you’re autistic, enjoying certain aspects of the festive period may be beyond you. This isn't something you've chosen, and you’re not deliberately being awkward, demanding, or dramatic when you try to meet your needs.

5. Ask for support.

Not everyone is going to understand how difficult this time of year is for you. But if you choose to be open with the people closest to you, they owe it to you to hear what you’re saying. If, for instance, you explain to your partner that going to their parent’s house for a week is going to affect you for the next month and you’d prefer to see them for a couple of days, it's important for your relationship that they pay attention to what you’re telling them.

Who you choose to share your autistic status with, and how you choose to do that, is up to you. But sharing with people you feel are safe and asking for their acknowledgement and support can make all the difference.

6. Focus on what you like.

Because this time of year can be so stressful, it’s easy to start worrying in October about how awful it’s going to be, especially if you’ve got a history of bad festive experiences. But maybe among the festive chaos, there are some things you enjoy.

From making cards, to watching movies, to getting out in the cold, to trying food and drink that you don’t usually have, is there some fun to be had? It doesn’t need to involve anyone else, unless you want it to, but there can be less obvious experiences at this time of year which can be immensely fulfilling. Experimenting with what they are could help balance out those that are less easy to deal with.

7. Know you’re not alone.

The festive period is difficult for many people—including those who are going through bereavement, illness, or financial hardship—and I’ve rarely met an autistic person who doesn’t struggle with some aspects of it. Those people closest to you might not understand your struggles, but there are those who do. Making contact with other autistic people can be helpful, as can connecting with others who find this time of year hard, for whatever reason.

If you’re really struggling at this time of year, it may be worthwhile seeking out support from a qualified therapist.

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