Christmas and Autism aren’t hugely compatible. Lots of bright lights, noise, high emotions, family, socialising…it can all get too much.
It can be a really stressful time. So I’ve been thinking about the past few Christmases and the one coming up and how I can make it restful and comfortable but also enjoyable.
Make sure you have the medication you need
To run out and go into withdrawal (depending on the kind of medication you have) is awful anyway but it’s insult to injury to have to go through it during a time that is characterised by its joyfulness. So make sure you know the dates your doctors/pharmacy will be closed and make sure you have the medication to get through that time. Please. If you need any extra motivation, do it for me. You do not need to go through that.
Reduce anxiety around presents by planning with friends and family
I get really anxious about receiving gifts. I always worry that I’m not reacting positively enough, that I’m letting the giver down. I worry that they’ll see a microsecond of anything other than joy and that will upset them.
To counteract these feelings, I’ve started discussing present buying with my family and friends. Asking for things can feel really, really, REALLY awkward but if I’ve learned anything, it’s that talking things through does help. So we talk about that and we talk about what I want and what they want, the more specific the better.
It does take out the surprise element but I don’t really like surprises anyway and if you have anxiety, chances are you don’t like them either.
Get as much information as possible
I make a point to know what’s going on as much as possible. For me, the biggest anxiety is food so when it comes to the important meals (such as Christmas Eve and Christmas Day – the ones where my family all get together), I make sure there will be at least a couple of things I can eat.
I’m lucky because my family are very used to my struggle with food so they do take that into account when planning a meal and that means a lot to me. It makes a massive difference to my Christmas experience.
Space out social events
Obviously there are some things you can’t avoid but where possible, I try and space out the socialising to give myself time to recover and recharge. And knowing in advance allows me to prepare myself, physically, mentally, and emotionally. This makes it a bit easier to regulate my mood.
Some things can’t be helped but my aim is to try and keep my emotions relatively even, rather than the tumultuous up and down that they can be, which is exhausting and upsetting.
Try not to beat yourself up about negative emotions
Something I also struggle with at Christmas is this feeling that I’m not enjoying myself enough, like if I’m not ecstatic I’ve somehow failed Christmas.
I’ll look around at everyone and they’re all laughing hysterically at some ridiculous Christmas dinner activity (anyone else have those differently tuned whistles that you had to blow in a particular order to play Christmas songs?) but I feel like crying. I’ve had that experience a couple of times and it’s one of the most isolating feelings I can think of. It makes me feel so alone and disconnected from everyone and it’s horrible.
I haven’t figured out what to do about this feeling yet but I think the first step is acknowledging it and accepting that it’s there. Sensory information tends to bring me back to myself and my environment: washing my hands or face, standing outside in the cold air, stroking animals, etc. I’m gonna try some of those and see if they help.
Accept the anti climax
I often crash after Christmas and really struggle with the anti climax. That really drags my mood down. I’m hoping that spreading out the Christmas events will soften that a little and I plan to have some fun, gentle things to do to afterwards but again, I’m trying to acknowledge and accept it.
I probably won’t be as calm about it when I’m in it; I’ll probably rage against it, as is my default these days, but I can but try. At the end of the day, that’s all you can do.
When you can’t get out of a stressful event, create a safety net
If there’s an event that I have to go to, I plan as much as possible. I’ll scout out somewhere to retreat to or bring/find a friend who can rescue me if needed. I create a safety net for myself and often its existence is enough. It takes off the pressure.
Take the time to think about the sad stuff if you need to
At Christmas, I can’t help but think of the people who aren’t there, who are gone for whatever reason. I miss them, not necessarily more than any other time but in a more obvious way.
They are not there at Christmas dinner, there’s a glaring hole in your shopping list, and there’s no present from them on Christmas morning. I think we do a disservice to ourselves and our emotions to push that aside, because it’s a holiday about joy or because it’s too hard. But if it’s something you want to do, you have to do it in a way that works for you.
Sometimes it feels right to raise a glass at dinner and sometimes it’s right just to take a few moments to think of them. Sometimes it’s right to flip through photo albums and sometimes it’s right to cry about it. Grief and sadness aren’t things you can do to someone else’s formula. But I think it’s important to take the time to remember and acknowledge the sad stuff, in whatever way you choose.
Ultimately, it’s all down to communication and planning. Planning, planning, and more planning, as always. That’s what I’m learning. I hope this has been somewhat helpful and that you guys all have the lovely, safe Christmases you deserve.
Lauren Alex Hooper is a blogger who writes about living with Autism Spectrum Disorder and mental health. You can read more of her blogs at https://finding-hope.co.uk/
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