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.

 

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

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