By Terra Vance
Holidays are thrilling times for a lot of people, but autistics– even if they love the season– tend to be extra stressed during the holidays.
One thing I’ve learned from neurotypical/non-autistic parents and partners of autistics is that they struggle to understand 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 the autistic person 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 they perceive the world, form values, rank priorities, and interact with others. 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, they 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 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):
Autistic differences– social, emotional, sensory, and cognitive– impact the way they perceive the world, form values, rank priorities, and interact with others. For example, because of the way our brains are structured, we need to know what is happening in advance.
For this reason, autistic people tend to not surprise others and can overload loved ones with details or questions because we’re trying to not disappoint or cause 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.
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, and 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?
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.
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.
- 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 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 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.
Terra Vance is an industrial and organizational psychology consultant and the proprietor of Acumen Consulting, LLC. She specializes in diversity, inclusion, multiculturalism, and poverty dynamics. She founded The Aspergian, a website to showcase actually-autistic voices and autistic talent.