Christmas is usually perceived to be a time of connection and joy, but for many people it can be fraught with anxiety and stress. For some Autistic people, the stress may come from being so excited about Christmas that we find it hard to focus on anything else – but for others, perhaps our dread of the big day is equally overwhelming!
The Christmas build up is all around us, and we are constantly bombarded with adverts on the television and products in the shops. This year, like last, we have the added impact of the global Covid-19 pandemic that is likely to affect how we celebrate and prepare for the social side of Christmas.
Even for those who don’t celebrate Christmas, the season comes with a lot of transitions, breaks from routines, time off work or school, aggressive advertisements, and festive decor that are inescapable. The holidays can make some of the sensory and social differences associated with autism difficult for autistics.
As Christmas time draws near, everything starts to change. We decorate our homes, schools, shops, and high streets– and even places like the doctor’s surgery gets filled with festive cheer.
For many autistic people, predictability and sameness helps create safe places to be, and by radically changing our spaces, we are changing the look, feel, and smell of those safe, familiar places. This can be confusing and disorienting.
Christmas is a sensory experience!
Christmas decorations often include brightly coloured flashing light displays and eye-catching shiny, glittery tinsel and baubles. These decorations have a strong visual impact that may be difficult to filter out for some Autistic people. They may be mesmerising and uplifting for those of us who enjoy lots of visual input– or conversely, they could be painful to look at, visually disorientating, and distracting.
If we consider the sounds associated with Christmas, carol singers and jingling sleigh bells often come to mind. We are surrounded by music at this time of year, with shops playing Christmas music and the radio and television buoyant with Christmas excitement.
Christmas parties and gatherings have not been encouraged due to the Covid-19 pandemic, but where people have held events, they can be noisy and full of excitement and unpredictable sounds. For many of us, this change in the auditory (sound) environment can feel painful and overwhelming.
Some autistic people may want to make their own noises to block out the unpredictable noises that others make. Christmas lights and battery powered decorations may emit a low humming sound that the majority of people cannot hear, but is audible and distracting for some autistics. Christmas crackers can be really scary for many people with the unpredictable bang, followed by squeals of excitement and surprise.
Often when we think of Christmas, we think of Christmassy smells such as cloves, mince pies, cinnamon, pine, and gingerbread. Some autistic people may find these smells painful, nauseating, or uncomfortable.
For other autistic people, it may be the different smell in their familiar spaces that just does not feel right.
Tastes are also different at Christmas, and there is usually an expectation that everyone eats a traditional Christmas Dinner. Some people may find it difficult to cope with a change to an expected meal that they normally eat on that day of the week. Others may find it difficult or impossible to eat foods that are not part of their usual diet.
Our interoceptive sensory processing experiences include how we process emotions and body signals. Christmas may be an emotional time of year for many reasons, and there are often high levels of expectation and anxiety around giving and receiving presents, having visitors, and managing a change of routine. These sensations may overwhelm some of us and even make it difficult to notice other sensations in our bodies like tiredness, hunger, or needing the toilet.
Let’s make our own traditions…
Christmas brings about a change in routines and sometimes it may be helpful to stand back and look at what we are doing and why we are doing it. If Christmas is a source of distress, it may be worth considering whether or not we need to do certain things.
If decorations cause distress, do we actually need to put them up? If some of our family loves decorations and would be upset without them, perhaps we could just decorate one room in the house so there are still safe spaces to retreat to.
Do we all have to have the same Christmas dinner if some of us prefer pizza instead? Christmas is about creating a special and meaningful day, and for some of us, being able to experience “sameness” or have our favourite, familiar meal is the best treat imaginable for Christmas dinner!
Could we step away from big family gatherings but plan to see family at a less stressful time of year “in the spirit of Christmas”? Can visits be planned in advance to reduce anticipatory anxiety— and spaced out to enable time for processing and regulating our emotions and senses?
There are lots of ways we can reduce anxiety about presents and gifts. In an infographic I created recently in my work at Autism Wellbeing UK | Facebook, we describe how not everyone likes a surprise…
Even having gift-wrapped presents in our homes may feel stressful due to the uncertainty about what’s inside them and how we may be expected to respond when we unwrap our gifts. Wrapped presents aren’t essential– some people get more enjoyment knowing what they’re having for Christmas.
Christmas presents can create big emotions– and even happy emotions can be overwhelming for some people. Presents don’t have to be a surprise. For some of us, not receiving presents is fine. Unwrapped presents are fine. Knowing what we’re getting is fine. Opening presents alone is fine. Whatever our authentic reaction is, and how this is expressed, is fine.
Suggestions for reducing anxiety and potential sensory overwhelm at Christmas
- Take the bangers (things that “pop” like a cap gun) out of Christmas crackers.
- Create places at home, school, or work with no Christmas decorations that we can retreat to without judgment to regulate our senses and emotions if that is what the autistic person needs.
- Take time to process social occasions and do some self-care before the next visitor or change to routine.
- Keep some familiar routines every day that help your autistic loved ones feel grounded and safe.
We may each describe the true meaning of Christmas in our own way, but most of us will agree it is a season of goodwill to others. So, this year let’s create our own traditions and spread a message of acceptance of the diverse ways we can celebrate the festive season.