The Real Reasons Autistic People Are Stressed During the Holiday Season11 min read

Holidays are thrilling times for a lot of people, but autis­tics– even if they love the season– tend to be extra stressed during the hol­iday season.

One thing I’ve seen from neu­rotyp­ical/non-autistic par­ents and part­ners of autis­tics is that they struggle with under­standing how their autistic loved one han­dles birth­days, anniver­saries, hol­i­days, and other spe­cial occa­sions.

In fact, many non-autistic people are hurt by how their autistic loved ones do– or don’t do– hol­i­days. Neurotypical folk often feel their autistic loved one is selfish, neg­a­tive, or uncaring, but that’s because they don’t know how to read autis­tics.

Autistic dif­fer­ences– social, emo­tional, sen­sory, and cog­ni­tive– impact the way we per­ceive the world, form values, rank pri­or­i­ties, and interact with loved ones. For example, because of the way my brain is struc­tured, I need to know what is hap­pening in advance. For this reason, I tend to not sur­prise people and over­load them with details. I’m trying to ease their minds, not over­whelm them.

It’s vitally impor­tant that autistic peo­ple’s dif­fer­ences not be reduced to sen­sory issues, though. Autistic people might have dif­ferent sen­sory pro­files, they might even have ide­o­log­ical dif­fer­ences– but over­whelm­ingly, we are dif­ferent from most people in the same ways. Those things aren’t just a check­list of med­ical symp­toms, either.

Autistic people are com­pli­cated, altru­istic, free-thinking, and thoughtful. Their issues with the hol­iday season extend beyond any neu­ro­log­ical or med­ical dif­fi­cul­ties. It’s socially unac­cept­able and can even result in their abuse if they try to express them­selves.

I asked some of my friends on autistic Twitter and in inter­views about why the hol­i­days can be stressful for them, and here is some feed­back I was given (answers quoted, para­phrased, or edited):

Routines

Autistic dif­fer­ences– social, emo­tional, sen­sory, and cog­ni­tive– impact the way we per­ceive the world, form values, rank pri­or­i­ties, and interact with loved ones. For example, because of the our brains are struc­tured, we need to know what is hap­pening in advance.

For this reason, we tend to not sur­prise people and can over­load loved ones with details or ques­tions because we’re trying to not dis­ap­point you or cause you anx­iety. Here’s what autis­tics had to say.

  • Not being in rou­tine kills me. School being out, my child care taking extra days off, unplanned visits, too much in the schedule, needing to cook/buy/wrap/organize/clean so many things is too much. I barely sur­vive the most boring and scripted days with my low exec­u­tive func­tioning.
  • My brain and body want sleep, quiet, and rest to deal with the changes– but every­thing and everyone around me is demanding extra social­izing, respon­si­bility, orga­ni­za­tion, more, more, more.
  • Taking a hol­iday from work. Holidays are sup­posed to be rewards for all the hard work and accom­plish­ments of the year, but all I can think about is that it feels like avoid­ance, and that I will pay for it at the begin­ning of the next year by starting off behind.
  • I need details. Where, who, when, and what time. I need to know when I can leave!
  • Leaving my home. People drive even worse. More acci­dents. More crowds every­where. I sound like a reclu­sive old lady but other than my kids’ school & activ­i­ties, and to work, I stay home as much as pos­sible. I work from home some­times and order some gro­ceries online.

Sensory Issues

Every autistic per­son’s sen­sory pro­file is unique. Some people fes­toon their food with salt, hot sauce, vinegar, onions, and slimy and lumpy condi­ments, and some can only stand the smell, taste, and tex­ture of the most plain of dry crackers. Some don’t notice when they’re hot or cold, and some can’t tol­erate two degrees above or below room tem­per­a­ture.

But, no matter the autistic per­son’s sen­sory needs, they’re usu­ally pretty intense– and vio­la­tions of those needs can be severely dis­tressing. Here’s what autis­tics had to say about sen­sory issues during the hol­i­days:

  • I have a large, and loud Step-family. I love them, but they can be over­whelming. Also, they are hug­gers. A hug from everyone when I arrive, and then again when I leave. It takes me an hour to leave.
  • Christmas lights — espe­cially ribbon lights. Just going out­side and my vision is like a mil­lion strobe light shining in my eyes.
  • Family gath­er­ings are hard because rel­a­tives don’t seem to care about sen­sory or med­ical needs. One leaves her dog out even though it gives me migraines and other family mem­bers asthma attacks. Another keeps her house frigid.
  • Everywhere I go is crowded, with loud and annoying music, some blinking lights make me dizzy. There’s many people intox­i­cated with alcohol which makes me feel unsafe and nau­se­ated.
  • The tra­di­tions cause so much undo stress. My chil­dren are autistic, and they thought I was awe­some for only cooking the foods they love– so no yams, no pota­toes, etc.
  • Most “tra­di­tional” (I guess) Christmas music. Those overly sac­cha­rine lyrics are just this hor­rible assault on my senses. Same with most hol­iday tele­vi­sion pro­gram­ming.
  • Being picky with the food you are offered when having a christmas dinner. They gen­uinely think you are spoiled and need to grow out of it.
  • Am I really the only person who can hear the Christmas music playing from three dif­ferent places at once and find it a night­marish hell that makes hearing any­thing else or pro­cessing any­thing else impos­sible? How am I sup­posed to have con­ver­sa­tions with that cacophony hap­pening?

Faking It

Autistic people gen­er­ally have the value that faking it and per­forming is unac­cept­able, which is already at odds with society. We don’t want you to lie to us to make us feel better, and so we’re already wor­rying because we don’t know when you say things like, “Oh, don’t get me any­thing,” or “I don’t need any­thing,” or “Whatever you get me will be fine,” if you really mean that you don’t expect a gift.

Because if we say we don’t want any­thing, that is lit­er­ally what we mean. We have to pre­tend that we have the energy, social bat­tery, and sen­sory tol­er­ance to do every­thing we need to do, because if we opt out, we miss seeing family mem­bers and cel­e­brating– some­thing we usu­ally want to do, but aren’t always able to enjoy because neu­ro­log­i­cally, we can’t handle it.

  • I can’t stand the small talk of having to wish everyone– even strangers– a happy hol­iday and for thanking people for gifts I don’t like and didn’t want.
  • I feel like a fraud when I buy gifts, attend events, and do things that feel wrong to me– as if they’re done out of some kind of hollow ritual instead of authen­ticity.
  • A lot of my family dis­likes me. I don’t like all of them, either. At best, they don’t want a rela­tion­ship with me and make no effort to main­tain one. I hate pre­tending to that we all want one during the oblig­a­tory get-togethers.
  • The stress of being expected to buy people things or send cards with sen­ti­ments that are, for lack of a better term, arti­fi­cial and based on a holiday-mandated sen­ti­men­tality. Concurrent is the stress of get­ting it in the neck when/if you resist or don’t play along.
  • I can’t lie. I lit­er­ally can’t. My mouth locks up, and I go mute. The expec­ta­tion is that I have to lie hun­dreds of times during the hol­iday season, and every single one is a building dis­tress that even­tu­ally is so over­whelming it’s trau­matic. If I manage to eek out an, “Oh, thank you. I love it,” when I don’t– I will hate being in my fake skin so much that I want to rip out of it. It never ends well.
  • I can’t abide small talk. It’s fake. I can’t pre­tend that I care, and I can’t stand to talk to someone who doesn’t care what I have to say.
  • I don’t like being around most of my family. I actu­ally hate them. They are racist, they are greedy, they live shallow lives, they have toxic beliefs, they think chil­dren should be seen and not heard, they’re pas­sive aggres­sive, and they react with extreme per­for­ma­tive offense when I say some­thing about it. How is it accept­able that they say racist things, but I’m an ass­hole for calling it out– or for swearing, like I just did?
  • How gen­uine, authentic hap­pi­ness isn’t often the focus of Christmas, but instead con­forming to social pres­sures to “per­form” hap­pi­ness. To be honest, that’s the main thing that stresses me out about neu­rotyp­ical every­thing. Not just Christmas.

Consumerism, Greed, and Waste

Greta Thunberg is amazing, but she’s not unique among autis­tics. Most of us have extremely pas­sionate beliefs that we don’t com­pro­mise, and a lot of those include envi­ron­mental pro­tec­tion, cli­mate sci­ence, ending poverty (including our own, for many of us), food scarcity, home­less­ness, humane treat­ment of ani­mals, other causes that are deemed “polit­ical” to most people.

We are detail-oriented, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t see the big pic­ture. Every gift wrapped, ever piece of tape, every ribbon, every ship­ping con­tainer– all the plastic! The throw-away, low-cost sweat­shop items, the aggres­sive adver­tise­ments… these things don’t gel with autistic values, and we’re not able to easily push them aside for the sake of meeting the status quo or tra­di­tion. The fol­lowing replies sum up what nearly every autistic person I inter­viewed had to say:

  • Is it bad if I don’t wrap presents because I dis­agree with wrap­ping paper and see it as com­pletely point­less since it gets ripped off, screwed up, and dashed in the bin?
  • Children work in fac­to­ries 16 hours a day and whole ecosys­tems are destroyed to bring me things I don’t want or need. There are things that I do want or need, but they’re too util­i­tarian– or eth­ical gifts are too expen­sive because they were made by people making a fair wage. So I get three sub­sti­tutes that cause me dis­tress because they all con­tribute to cli­mate insta­bility, human rights vio­la­tions, and animal cru­elty because they were on sale.
  • I’m over­whelmed by addi­tional adver­tising pres­sure. So many mes­sages screaming, “You’re not OK until you buy this thing…and this thing.…” It’s toxic. Feels almost abu­sive.
  • I want to give when I have money, when I am inspired to give, and when there is a gift the other person would want or need. Sometimes that’s in June. The social pres­sure to get office gifts and family I barely know or see means that I will suffer finan­cially, and I’d rather just spend the money on my chil­dren.

Social Pressures

There’s much overlap in some of these cat­e­gories. There’s social pres­sure to waste, to endure sen­sory over­whelm, to be inau­thentic, etc. Conformity goes against the autistic neu­rology in ways that non-autistic people can’t really under­stand.

Not only is it hard to esti­mate the pri­or­i­ties, fads, and tastes of people who are so dif­ferent from you– but it’s also so pro­foundly upset­ting that sev­eral autistic people con­fided that they struggle every hol­iday season to not end their own lives. Some had made attempts.

  • I don’t know how I’m sup­posed to peer into some­one’s soul and divine the right gift for them when I can’t even peer into their soul and figure out whether they lit­er­ally mean what­ever they just said.
  • Relatives or anyone who shows up only at Christmas time. I don’t under­stand why you would want to keep people in your life that only remember you exist once a year, exchanges the same generic gifts until another year. I’m told to keep quiet about it to save the hassle.
  • That whole expres­sion of “good­will”– of course I’m deplorable for pointing out I’d rather people just didn’t and con­tinued being the same ass­holes they’ve been all year. Saves any con­fu­sion.
  • There’s no socially accept­able way of turning down invites so being forced into sit­u­a­tions that I know will be a sen­sory night­mare.
  • How long is this “lunch party” going to take, it’s four o’clock now and nobody looks like they’re about to go?
  • The pres­sure to per­ceive spe­cial occa­sions as an oppor­tu­nity to take stock of your life and act impul­sively for the sake of short­ening your bucket list. Yes, Aunt Megan. Me get­ting a boyfriend is about as likely as you not acting like a Boomer. Please go away.
  • The pres­sure to per­ceive spe­cial occa­sions as an oppor­tu­nity to take stock of your life and act impul­sively for the sake of short­ening your bucket list. Yes, Aunt Karen, me get­ting a boyfriend is about as likely as you not acting like a Boomer. Please go away.
  • Emotional labor my family forces me to per­form because they’re all in decades-long con­flict with each other, and I seem like a “good lis­tener.” Also, the fact that I want to open a single present and then relax w/each other but instead we spend 10 hours cooking/cleaning.
  • “Family gath­er­ings,” because even if I love everyone involved, it becomes very chaotic, and I mis­in­ter­pret teasing or over­react to things people do– so rela­tion­ships become adver­sarial even though they shouldn’t be.
  • The rit­uals make me feel unsafe, knowing that I can’t opt out without making people sad and angry… but lots of them are dis­tressing to me, like kissing random people under the mistletoe, cha­rades, lying about santa, for­feits– and you often can’t just leave!
  • The com­plete dis­re­gard for per­sonal bound­aries and self-care, so that I can’t exit the room to take a social breather without having to explain that nothing is wrong or having people worry about me. I can’t ask for con­sent to not be touched and hugged because bodily autonomy is not valued, and I have to just “suck it up” so that I’m not always the one who “ruins” the hol­i­days with my “neg­a­tivity.”
  • Guests, espe­cially family. I try my best, but it’s hard when cousin-comparing becomes a com­pe­ti­tion. “So-and-so cousin is get­ting a degree in law. What are you doing?”
  • The pres­sure to per­ceive spe­cial occa­sions as an oppor­tu­nity to take stock of your life and act impul­sively for the sake of short­ening your bucket list. Yes, Aunt Megan. Me get­ting a boyfriend is about as likely as you not acting like a Boomer. Please go away.

The Hot Take

Your autistic family mem­bers, stu­dents, part­ners, friends, and co-workers aren’t just the sum of their sen­sory or social dif­fer­ences. They’re com­pli­cated, thoughtful, social, loving, respectful people who have dif­ferent needs– and also dif­ferent pri­or­i­ties and values. Those needs and pri­or­i­ties are not less valid and shouldn’t be treated like an incon­ve­nience.

Practicing hol­i­days like an autistic person might would likely mean let­ting go of a lot of tra­di­tion, but they might also lead to a shift in per­spec­tive that leads for deeper, more mean­ingful hol­iday inter­ac­tions that actu­ally val­i­date and solidify rela­tion­ships.

 

Stalk us

13 Comments


  1. You can give plants, find second hand, nice pots, jars, dec­o­ra­tive mugs or con­tainers to put them in — it helps the plant and sup­ports a charity.

    You can say no to any social invi­ta­tion you dont want to attend. You can always decline hugs, kisses etc.. with no reason, or just a palm up and “no thank you”. Another per­sons dis­com­fort isnt more impor­tant than your own — you have a valid dis­ability and sen­sory expe­ri­ence which is much more impor­tant to take care of. You really dont have to do any emo­tional labour for other people/ let them dump their neg­a­tivity and drama on you. (“I dont think i’m the right person to dis­cuss this with, excuse me”, “I have to take care of myself in this set­ting, I dont have the energy/attention/capacity for this con­ver­sa­tion right now, I hope you find someone you can chat with about it” etc..). You can learn healthy bound­aries as an adult, even if your family system has prob­lem­atic boundary sys­tems. You are only respon­sible for taking care of your­self first, before any needs others try impose. Its ‘code­pen­dancy’ to pri­ori­tise someone elses com­fort or needs over your own — these other people are adults and can seek other sources for their needs and handle dis­a­point­ment, polite or blunt refusal.

    So many aspies struggle with boundary issues and toxic family/parental rela­tion­ship dynamics

    Some great insta­gram­mers are: @nedratawwab @undercoverautie @aspieedition @nfyt @neurodivergentrebel often has good stuff/links in her sto­ries (some just psy­chol­o­gists who often address bound­aries, some aspies who also do so)

    1. I like the article and every­thing you raised is valid — even if you are set­ting healthy bound­aries with family/others, even just the higher volume and expec­ta­tion at this time of year is an added stressor

      1. Unless you KNOW the person and have a pretty good idea of what they like, DON’T give presents.
        I don’t want second hand pots with plants in them, nice pots or jars. Sorry your ‘nice’ is not nec­es­sarily my ‘nice’. I don’t like being in a posi­tion of needing to decline unwanted phys­ical con­tact.
        I espe­cially do not want to feel respon­sible for their dis­ap­point­ment or to be blamed for dis­ap­pointing other people.
        And TELL me — how does one stop others dumping their neg­a­tivity or judge­ment on me???
        I do not want any bl**dy ‘insta­gram­mers’, what­ever they might be.
        Insincerity every­where. Forced jol­lity and bon­homie are not my cup of tea.
        Spending good money to give unwanted presents to people I know and receiving unwanted presents for people I know offends me.

        1. No need to attack

          It is a good idea — and of course it should only go to people who would appre­ciate it. It was a response to the article which men­tioned many aspies dis­like the over-consumerism, envi­ron­mental harm, greed and waste inherent at Christmas time. I dont feel the need to live up to other peo­ple’s soci­etal expec­ta­tions for gifts, theres more shame and harm done by cheap, wasteful prod­ucts than in an eco or low budget gift. A plant is great because even if someone doesnt want it, it does not harm for them to throw it away. If you sup­port a charity as part of it, you can put that in the card so the receiver can feel good about that too — or but a mug/container per­sonal to their tastes that they can re-use if the plant dies/dont want it (like a doctor who mug, or con­stel­la­tion ceramic con­tainer). Or potted flowers. Plants are nat­ural air puri­fiers in the home and you can always include care instruc­tions. Every plant makes a dif­fer­ence to carbon status in the world. You can also make DIY gifts, bake gifts etc.. (according to what the per­sons tastes are) — you dont have to fall into the con­sumerist trap (this is more a response still to the arti­cles issues raised than your com­ment). I per­son­ally think people should list their wish­list, gift ideas and tastes online on a Christmas reg­istry, so no-one gets types of gifts they dont want, because its some­thing I also dis­like.

          I already men­tioned things you can say to interupt other people dumping their emo­tional crap on you. Just end the con­ver­sa­tion. But if you care more about their hap­pi­ness than your own, I cant imagine you’ll want to do that. Youre never respon­sible for someone elses feel­ings, thats their job to take care of. I would rather not be a slave to everyone elses desires/needs when they dont actu­ally care about mine — and the sensory/emotional impact it has on me, so I choose to not engage in ways that affect me neg­a­tively wher­ever pos­sible and pri­ori­tise my own needs.
          As for the insta­gram­mers. None of them are fluffy pos­i­tive accounts, they are people who have expe­ri­enced these types of chal­lenges, family/relationship dynamics and emo­tional abuse etc.. and help people nav­i­gate out of it. So if anyone is inter­ested in learning healthy adult bound­aries those are an easily access­able place to look rather than rec­om­mending a book right off the bat. Half of the ones are aspies anyway — not likely to be fake jolly, or like the gen­eral insta­gram trend.

          1. Alicia Croft. WHY do you inter­pret my response as ‘attack’!! ???
            I would never ever dare to give people unwanted ‘presents’ that they would be embar­rassed to receive/
            I don’t know just what ‘charity’ you are refer­ring to??
            I think that YOU must have a totally unreal, weird idea of what ‘Asperger’s” is.
            I am NOT at all com­fort­able with ‘inter­rupting’ people. I am NOT at all com­fort­able with giving plants I don’t want, even IF they are in new post. Receiving use­less gifts embar­rasses me totally. The whole bloody process of putting me in the wrong for not wanting things shits me off.
            B y the way, I an NOT an “aspie” and if you call me that I will hate you and avoid you like the plague. It is t a totally degrading term. I am a person who as Asperger’s char­ac­ter­is­tics.
            Bu the way, this IS at attack, My first reply was simply explaining that some of you sug­ges­tions were not sen­sible.

  2. I actu­ally like Christmas, and I think it’s mostly because of how our family cel­e­brates.

    We don’t do big family gath­er­ings; it’s just us. We mostly use reusable gift bags to exchange gifts. Any wrap­ping paper is recy­cled. Our par­ents give us money and let us pick out what we want before­hand. (And some­times I get to help pick out sur­prise gifts for my sister, which is really fun.) There’s no oblig­a­tion to give gifts to others. We open gifts sit­ting together in the living room and I get to sit in the corner. Besides that, it’s mostly a normal day.

    The tl;dr is that Christmas in our family is very low-key. Expectations are min­imal. It’s a quiet family gath­ering and I have a nice time.

    I sup­pose one reason it’s like this is because I’m not expected to act like a “real adult” yet. I’m 24, I’m still in col­lege (no career yet), I have no real social life, and I live with my par­ents.

    While every autistic person is dif­ferent, I hope this helps any par­ents who are reading imagine what an autistic-friendly Christmas can look like.

    1. I loved Christmas as a girl — just “family” that is par­ents and sib­lings. I loved Christmas at home, when I had my own chil­dren, but HATED Christmas with my in-laws. My kids didn’t enjoy Xmas with them either as their idea of Christmas was food and drink for the adults, and chil­dren ‘behave propery’ and pass the presents around to the adults 🙁 And by the way sit on the floor!!
      I have always found Social Christmas par­ties stressful. All this forced jol­lity and friend­li­ness, noisy too much sweet food, dressing ups and silly party games 🙁
      I never even like Christmas with my sib­lings, par­ents and all the cousins aka nieces and nephews. Too much bul­lying between the cousins. Sisters trying to boss you around or having tantrums because you do NOT want the brandy butter they mad at great effort on their part, and saying mean things about you of your kids, brothers in law telling you that you are ‘wrong’. Eating food you don’t like! etc etc. Trying to avoids polit­ical and reli­gious topics 🙁 Horrible!!

      1. That sounds like a lot of expec­ta­tions to endure. I wish our cul­ture took steps to take any tox­i­city out of “fun” so that it could turn into real fun (some­thing done vol­un­tarily without social pres­sures).

      2. Also, saying mean things about your chil­dren sounds awful. I’m sorry you’ve had to deal with such inap­pro­priate behavior.

        1. Unfortunately I think that it is pretty typ­ical of ‘fam­i­lies’ 🙁 Parents have ‘pets’.
          I attended an Australia day family get together with my hus­band’s extended family, They were just the same 🙁 As far as I know they are all fairly typ­ical narrow minded (NT) middle-class people

          1. Really? That’s ter­rible. You’d think most people would realize that crit­i­cizing some­one’s chil­dren is a fast way to alienate that person.

  3. terra, its so good to know im not alone

Talk to us... what are you thinking?