Christmas can be extremely stressful. There is such a big expectation for it to be a special, celebratory day but often the build up is so intense that by Christmas day, we are completely burnt out. It is important to look after yourself as well as spending time with family and friends. Don’t be afraid to put your autistic needs first as this is completely reasonable. In fact, it is important for everyone because if you make sure your needs are met, it will reduce the intensity of meltdowns and lessen disruption over the Christmas period. You should never be afraid to own your autism, even if social pressures try to make you fit into a neurotypical box. Christmas should be fun for everyone and that includes you. There are tons of issues surrounding Christmas for us but we also deserve to have a good time on the day, just like everyone else. There will be problems but there can also be lots of good memories.
In this article, I’ve included several tips to help you make the most of Christmas while looking after yourself. I’ve also included some printable visual guides that you can fill out to help you navigate big days over the holidays.
- Say ‘no’ if you need to. Sometimes there are invitations to a party every day over Christmas or a different family member to visit (sometimes more than one visit in the same day). There may be a big party that you know you wouldn’t cope with. It’s okay to say ‘no’ when you know you can’t cope with something. Try to space out big events so that you have time to unwind in between. If there is pressure or disapproval when you say ‘no’, remember that not everyone gets it and you can’t change that. You can look after yourself and try to educate people with a simple statement such as, ‘autism means that I can’t cope with too many busy events, I’m going to another activity if you want to see me then.’
- Make sure there is a space to escape to. If you are having lots of family round or going to a different place, make sure there is a space you can go to to unwind when you get overwhelmed. Maybe put a sensory kit on your bed so you can go there when you need to. It might help if it is a space free from Christmas decorations. I also plan sensory escapes into my time, such as having a bath in the afternoon or going for a walk with my dog, so that I don’t wait until I’m near burnout. If you are going somewhere else, arrange a space with the host in advance. If you are going to a pub, it might be as simple as going outside for five minutes in the middle of the meal. You can also build respite into normal activities. If I’m getting overwhelmed, I sometimes go to the toilet or go to get a drink (even if I don’t need to). This way I don’t need to constantly explain my autism but I can still get a breather when I need to. I normally put a sensory aid in my pocket (my favourite ones right now are Harry Potter coins) to hold when I’m nervous.
- Don’t worry if you can’t cope with traditions. We don’t do surprise presents so that our expectations and anxiety are managed. We also do alternative food options (a party buffet instead of a sit down dinner) and don’t worry if we don’t spend all the time as a family. Sometimes attention spans can’t cope with a Christmas movie or social difficulties stop us being able to take part in family board games. We create our own traditions and routines, so that the time is enjoyable for everyone.
- Take communication cards. This doesn’t have to be anything fancy, even a phrase or list on a piece of paper will work. If you become non-verbal or find it difficult to communicate your needs then this will help on the day, especially with people who aren’t familiar with your autism. It may help to have a card saying that you can’t speak right now and why, so you can get it out if need be. It can also help to have a card that states your basic needs (such as low light or less noise) and what you find hard, so that you can show it to people if you need them to help. You could even have a card that asks people to help you find your carer.
- Avoid impossible social demands and don’t worry if you make mistakes. There’s certain things that I just can’t cope with, like saying hello to extended family or strangers. I don’t know what to say and can’t cope if they want to hug me or shake my hand. I’m actually quite good at meeting people in other situations but if they are sort of my family then I just don’t know what to do. I tend to remove myself while greetings are going on or immerse myself in a book. If people think I’m rude, they will see that I’m friendly later on (and honestly, it doesn’t really matter anyway). I will make social mistakes over the Christmas period…it’s just inevitable. I don’t worry about this. There is nothing I can do and if people judge me badly, that is their problem for being ignorant or unforgiving. It may sound callous to say that but it’s also true, we can’t be expected to fit into every neurotypical situation if they won’t fit into any of our autistic realities.
- Have a designated carer. This means that there is one person who you can rely on to help if you need it. They will know where your escape space is and be able to advocate for you if other people are making problems. They will be familiar with your unique needs and be able to enjoy the day with you. You may even be able to plan to go for a walk together or have a drink away from the party at a particular time so you get a break without being completely alone. They can also have a copy of the day’s visual guide so that you both have the same information. You might also benefit from having a non-verbal signal so that you can easily tell them when you need a sensory break. The makaton for help is a fist on top of an open hand, being raised upwards.
- Plan your time and prepare yourself for changes. Try to pin down what you are doing each day and write it in a schedule or a list that you can understand. It might be helpful to include pictures if you benefit from visual aids. I make a weekly schedule and a schedule for each day something big happens. For the latter, you can use the guides attached to this article. There is a decorated one or a plain one to suit different visual needs. You can fill them out using writing, lists or pictures (whatever works best for you). Sometimes, if things are tentative, I write in pencil as a way to prepare myself for the fact that things might change. Make sure you have a person to help you re-organise your schedule if changes occur at the last minute. I normally ask my mum to tell me the new order so I can write it down and memorise the new schedule. Don’t get frustrated with yourself if this is really hard, it’s completely normal to find changes overwhelming as an autistic person. Having a plan and someone to help will enable you to cope with this.
Click the image to open a PDF of the printable.