Holiday Guide for Autists

I’ve been called a “Grinch” when it comes to the holidays, and it’s not entirely inaccurate. There are a lot of things that can cause my autism to flare into meltdowns when it comes to traditions that other people consider benign or downright wonderful. Since I love organizing things into lists of 10, here are 10 holiday triggers for me:

1. Loud holiday music everywhere

2. Holiday candles

3. Overwhelming pine smell, even from a real Christmas tree

4. Pumpkin spice smell spritzes

5. Edible gifts from people I don’t know and am not sure I can trust to be safe

6. Big holiday gatherings

7. Physical hugs from people I do and do not know and may or may not want to be hugged by

8. Being pressured into holiday “cheer”

9. Holiday parties where the humor goes over my head — with or without alcohol involved

10. Pressure to give and receive gifts

Gifts are a topic of another essay here, but needless to say, I don’t understand the social rules of gift giving. I don’t understand why we have to spend money on gifts for other people who don’t want the gift and who will tell us to our faces how much they love it and then throw it away ten minutes later — or ten months later. I don’t understand why I’m supposed to receive meaningless gifts with pretend gratitude. I don’t understand how gift giving enhances your place on the social hierarchy. There are times I find gifts perfect for other people, and I might or might not save them for a holiday occasion, but I don’t understand why I’m supposed to do that.

As a child, my father’s autism always became more apparent during the holidays. The financial pressure was bad enough but added to that was the pressure to perform in a certain way around the holidays. He actually hated the noise of having eleven children running around opening presents and often had to retreat (he learned later to do this BEFORE he started yelling and hitting us). He hated the change in food patterns around the holidays and hated the noise and extra lighting. But he didn’t know that most of these problems with triggers for his own meltdowns and so he blew up and then often ruined Christmas for us, after having spent weeks and thousands of dollars trying to make it all perfect. It is rather sad, looking back. I’m not sure I did any better with my kids because I hadn’t been diagnosed yet, either.

If you’re autistic, I recommend spending time thinking about what things are likely to trigger you. A sing-along event? Don’t go. Or if you go, plan to spend only part of the time there. Or have an exit strategy if things get overwhelming. Or plan for a half day off work afterward. If you can’t do in-person shopping, there are online options now (thank God!) for all of us. If you hate looking at light displays, just get a face mask if you’re being asked to walk through them. Take care of yourself. Your holiday and the holiday of everyone else around you will be so much better.

If you’re a person adjacent to an autistic person, you may need to help remind them of what things bother them. Sometimes we’re oblivious to what triggers us, even if we’re adults. Especially autistic children need careful protection from expectations of how they’re “supposed” to act and adults who want to invade their physical boundaries by demanding hugs when they’re covered in nasty holiday perfume. It’s a hard time. It can be wonderful, but you need to put in a little extra work to help us with our sensory overload and possibly to translate our inability to perform social correctly at these times. Thank you!

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