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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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!
- The Social Convention of Holiday Gifts: An Autistic Nightmare - November 30, 2021