The Social Convention of Holiday Gifts: An Autistic Nightmare

Ho, ho, oh, no!

That time of the year is upon us! You know the one– that part of the year when the annual holidays of gift-giving plague us. An entire season in which social convention adds the forced expectation of presenting friends, family, your postal worker, and anyone who you have ever met over the entirety of your life with the perfect gift that will convey your appreciation for them and make their lives better.

Are you panicking yet? Because I am!

Giving gifts during the holidays is the most stressful thing that humans have ever invented, especially for Autistic people. I’m going to reiterate what I just said, holiday gift-giving is stressful to Autistics!

We are already quite perplexed by a vast amount of unwritten, and quite frankly confusing, Neurotypical social rituals and expectations.

The holidays just add so much more to it because now we have to decipher hints, social cues, and what an appropriate gift would be on top of figuring out what we usually have to figure out about Neurotypical communication in the first place.

Image is to demonstrate what shopping is like for an autistic person. Clearly, the person in the image is stressed and overwhelmed about giving gifts. She has decision anxiety. Autism and the capitalism of holidays are a difficult combination.
Image is square and features a woman who is multiracial. She is wearing a Santa hat and grabbing her head in frustration. In her arms is a stack of gifts. Her facial expression is of melodramatic stress.

Let me expand on this.

To gift or not to gift? That is the question.

First thing first, there are questions that you can’t ask if you are considering getting a gift for another person, such as if the person you intend to give a present to is even planning on giving you a gift to begin with! Even though you need to know, you can’t ask because, then, people think you are hinting that you are expecting a gift from them when you’re not hinting at that at all.

The reality is that you just don’t want to unintentionally put them on the spot by giving them a gift when they didn’t expect it, and then they don’t have one for you! You don’t want them to feel the pressure to return the gesture when they can’t, don’t want to, or didn’t think about giving you a gift at all.

Image is meant to show how giving a gift can be awkward if one isn't expecting it. On autism and the holidays.
Image features a Christmas tree. In front of it, a White man with a beard is giving a gift to a Black woman with long braids. A talk bubble reads, “Really, you shouldn’t have…” The woman’s face has a politely awkward courtesy smile.

Even if the person is okay with giving you a present but didn’t remember to buy one, they will now feel rude. We Autistics feel horrible because we made them feel that way. All of this is because we decided to get them a gift without knowing if they were getting us one. Now, they’ll awkwardly avoid us until after Valentine’s Day or just pack up and move to a different country so they’ll never have to face us again!

Yes, we really do think like this. We Autistics are notorious for overthinking everything.

When I say everything, I really do mean we overthink everything!

And if so, how much?

Take, for instance, the price of the present you plan on buying for someone. Let’s assume that by some miracle you found out that the person you wanted to give a gift to was planning on getting one for you, as well! Great!

Anxiety from pressure evaded, right?!

No. Wrong. It will never be that easy for us auti-diverse! This made it worse. Now we have to figure out how much to spend on a gift for the person whom you will be exchanging presents with. Spending too little can be interpreted as if you don’t care. Spending too much makes the other person feel as if they didn’t do good enough in choosing your gift or that you think you’re better than them and are showing off.

This once again puts us in a bind, because by now we have all learned it’s considered incredibly rude to ask how much someone plans on spending on you or how much the present was that they gave you.

To make it worse, this social taboo comes with a nasty paradox. If you don’t spend an equal or greater amount on the present you’re gifting as the other person did, then you’re now indebted to the other person because your gift was socially inadequate compared to the price of the other person’s gift!

And, you have to make sure the next gift-giving celebration that comes around that you compensate for the shortcomings of the previous gifting fail.

Image features a price tag with an exclamation point and a question mark on it. Price tag has a red bow on it.

If you ever wonder why Autistics have so many shutdowns, burnouts, and meltdowns during the holidays, this is why! How Neurotypicals manage to balance this without pulling out their hair, I will never know.

Will they even like my gift?!

Next in line with the horrors of holiday gift-giving is whether or not they will like the gift you give them at all, which can make one pretty nervous. Will they like it, or will they be giving it away as a white elephant gift at next year’s office party?

A white woman with a ponytail and striped shirt is opening a gift and looks horrified by what’s in the box. A talk bubble reads, “It’s… something.”

It would hurt, but we could probably overcome that through logic and analytical thinking and rationalize that it just wasn’t the right gift for them. We can try something else when the next holiday season rolls around.

Or, we could sidestep the entire situation and include a gift receipt in the box. It’s anxiety-inducing, most certainly, but it’s nowhere near as anxiety-inducing as if you aren’t thrilled with the gift they gave you! The pressure is real!

Let’s say it’s the worst gift you’ve ever received. Perhaps they gave you a wool sweater, and you have epic levels of sensory processing issues. You are already scanning your brain for a way to destroy it on “accident” so you will never have to wear the meltdown-inducing itch trap as long as you live.

Image features a person with a forced smile and wearing a wooly ugly sweater. Image resembles an awkward photo from the eighties or nineties. It reads, “Thanks so much…”

Now, you, in all your Autistic glory, have to resist the urge to contort your face in disgust and stop yourself from setting the offending sweater on fire, right then and there. You have to put forth the mask of all masking and, gulp, pretend you like it! Love it even!

Hell, you may even be nominated for an Emmy with the Holiday performance you’ve put on! You even give the person a hug in appreciation for giving you hell in the form of a shirt, all while praying no one saw through your faux Neurotypical performance.

Then, when you think they won’t notice, you frantically dig through the gift wrappings hoping to discover a gift receipt.

That is, if you are lucky enough to exchange gifts one-on-one. Otherwise, perhaps no one will notice you are looking for a gift receipt in hopes to be able to rid yourself of the sadistic itch tube parading as a sweater.

Group gift-giving gatherings and autism are a festive social minefield.

We also have to consider the social convention and torment of group gift exchanges!

When three or more people gather together to exchange their gifts all at once and in front of others, to us Autistics, it is a social trap.

Image features a box trap with a box propped open by a stick with a string tied to it. There’s a gift inside.

Now, not only does every bit of stress I have told you about up until now apply, you get to multiply that stress by the number of people in the group!

Stress × ten people = run!

We also get to add in the very uncomfortable challenge of making sure we give everyone in the group an equally valuable and appealing gift according to their individual personalities.

Oh, the angst that Autistics feel attempting to meet social holiday expectations is incredible! Not to mention we have to pretend to like any gift we open in the group, equally, even if we don’t! Then, we have to mind ourselves and focus on toning down our reaction of Autistic joy to the gifts that are totally amazing, as to not hurt anyone’s feelings whose gift was less personal.

It’s not always so bad…

Don’t get me wrong! Plenty of Autistics love giving gifts because it’s a way of connecting and communicating our appreciation to others because we struggle in communicating it in traditional, Neurotypical ways at any given time.

We even enjoy giving gifts just because it makes us happy when we make someone else happy. When it comes right down to it, gifts during the holidays can help bridge social gaps between different neurotypes.

If it’s the thought that counts, rest assured we have overthought with full metal autistic hyperfocus.

Please remember, when an Autistic gives a gift, they aren’t only giving you a present. They are also giving a great amount of self-sacrifice! A huge chunk of our gift-giving effort also includes a huge chunk of us.

We take time away from our grounding interests and willingly venture out of our areas of comfort. We leave our sensory havens and abandon our coping mechanisms and routines in order to participate in the spirit of the season.

Those who may become overstimulated in crowds of people go out and brave the holiday gift-buying masses despite the petrifying anxiety that the holiday season brings because we genuinely care about the people in our lives.

We mask with the appropriate Neurotypical cheer and act the part when shopping for our loved ones.

This image is to portray autistic masking. The festive glasses mask the anxiety the person feels. In true autism fashion, they do not make eye contact or look at the camera.
A Black person with a low fade and sponge twists wears novelty glasses that are made of big plastic Christmas trees. They are looking off to the side, away from the camera. There is a holiday scene in the background.

When we become tired and no longer can maintain the facade, we wind our way around the back aisles of stores in attempt to avoid and prevent overstimulation— all while searching for the perfect gift that we had been contemplating for the last few months.

We often second guess what gifts we buy people and lay awake nights on end anxiously wondering if the ones we got gifts for will like them. We may go back and exchange them multiple times because the first three gifts we purchased for someone didn’t feel right. It has to be perfect.

Many of us shutdown, meltdown, and burnout because of the anxiety when the holiday gift-giving season comes around because the holidays are stressful to Autistics.

Many of us just resolve to send and hand out holiday greeting cards, and that is more than perfectly acceptable, too. You never know how much we went through to be able to do that simple gesture of Holiday cheer!

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11 Responses

  1. How I survived 23 years in and out of retail as an even partially functional life form of any sort, let alone a human being, continues to sometimes astonish me; and especially so in this season.
    Sometimes I am quite content to have no children, no in-laws.
    Me, 2 orange tabby rescue fellows, my books, my hobbies, and 2 good friends.
    That is a Christmas holiday load I can cope with.

  2. I have a love hate relationship with Christmas for this reason. I was lucky enough that all fellow advocates, friends and family told me “don’t worry about me” obe of my adoptive big Sisters even said ” you are a good person and such a good baby brother, you have given me the greatest gift of all in you” this helped alot because I’m having Christmas in a new house for the VERY Very first time with my GFs family, I’m scared that I won’t be able to show enough emotionand seem ungrateful. This time of year is so hard for Autistics. Ahhhhh lol

  3. I think this must be a Christmas thing. I never stress about feeling obliged to give presents to anyone for Hanukkah. I only recently started getting gifts for my mom. But I talked with some autistic friends who celebrate Christmas and they sounded stressed.

    1. As for me I can only experience Christmas as autistic me & I can only experience it in the country where I live yet it appears there is Christmas stress for a lot of people no matter their neurodiversity or neuroconformity or country of residence, in at least the English speaking countries, since Googling Christmas stress just now got “About 577,000,000 results (0.61 seconds)”. I’m thinking that if there are close to 600 million Google hits for Christmas stress then the Earth’s English-speaking population is doing something Very, Very, WRONG with and about Christmas.

  4. When I was about 20 years old, I made a decision to cut “commercialized holiday rituals” (as I then called them) out of my life completely. I told all my friends and relatives that I wanted neither to give nor to receive holiday gifts, which IMO are just not worth the stress or the money. I needed my holidays to be a time to relax, NOT a time for even more stress than normal. I also hated being obliged to act grateful for gifts that I had no use for, which IMO were just a waste of the other person’s money.

    1. I did almost exactly the same- stopped doing most holidays in my early 20s, more than 30 years ago. No regrets!

  5. ” I also hated being obliged to act grateful for gifts that I had no use for, which IMO were just a waste of the other person’s money.”

    Resembles my first couple of christmasses: I acted in some way, my parents reacted extremely well, and lil’ people-pleasing me needed to reenact the act every single year, to make the parents happy.
    After I decided to be more honest, and started to chastise them over their choices and amounts of gifts, nothing changed. They throw stuff at me that I neither need, nor want, and expect gratitude (complete honesty: there were three instances where they took my input into account — a GameBoy, a cartridge of Pokemon, and lots of underwear, and one instance where they just got me right (the complete published works of a writer I took fancy to)).

    This year, I am adamant about not being available — they cannot gift or guilt-trip someone who is not around to be targeted.

  6. I have a colleague who for the past three years has always given me a Chili’s gift card. She knows that prior to the pandemic, I ate at Chili’s every alternate Tuesday. On weeks that I did not eat at Chili’s, I ate at Perkins on alternate Thursdays.

    At Chili’s I always had an Oldtimer burger and fries. For dessert I had cheesecake and coffee. At Perkins I always had the meatloaf with mashed potatoes, brown gravy, and corn. For dessert I always had slice of banana cream pie and coffee.

    My routine was been disrupted by Covid. At first it was because these restaurants had been closed. After they reopened, I didn’t feel safe dining out and have been ordering meals from Perkins and Chili’s via Door Dash. Strangely enough, I no longer feel compelled to order these meals on alternate Tuesdays or Thursdays. I order whenever I feel like it and feel as if I’m being a “bad boy” who is walking on the “wild side.”

    For Christmas this year my colleague gave me a gift certificate to a restaurant that I’ve never dined at. I have no idea why she did this. She knows that prior to the pandemic I only ate at one of two area restaurants. I never varied from this routine.

    I took the gift and thanked her because that’s what you’re supposed to do. Having anticipated that she would give me a gift, I gave her a made from scratch hamburger candle that looks and smells like a real hamburger.

    I have no idea of what I’m supposed to do with this gift card. Until this pandemic is brought under control, I have stopped eating out. I also have no interest in eating at a restaurant that I’ve never been to. I used to do this when I was younger but now that I’m 61, I find my routines to be extremely comforting.

    I cannot imagine what my colleague was thinking. I suppose she forgot about my routines.

  7. This is why “wish lists” exist, and I, ahem, WISH everyone would use them! It’s so much easier just to go to the person’s wish list, choose something that strikes a chord with me, and ORDER it for them (no in-person shopping for me, gaaaa). And it’s also a good way to make sure I get something *I* want, not some random goshawful chunky jewelry or a book that I would sooner use as fireplace fuel than read.

    Alas, much of the NT world hasn’t discovered the miracle of the wish list, or else thinks the list is a “suggestion” list or a jumping-off place for other ideas. My in-laws will never learn.

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