As anyone in the autism spectrum (or circles of family and friends) know, the holiday season can be very overwhelming. The ASD individual often needs time to regroup and recoup after a busy or intense day. He may rely on a repetitive and predictable schedule to bring a sense of ease and calm.
Holiday parties, seasonal foods, extra gatherings, surprise gifts, and even days off can really tip the scales, leaving the autistic person very drained. Watch for signs of fight (meltdowns, outbursts, or arguments), flight (withdrawal, leaving conversations, going to room, bowing out of activities), and/or freeze (staring, shutting down, displaying physical symptoms of stress) to understand when the person is struggling.
These tips can significantly help the season flow with more connection and less stress.
1. Excitement = Adrenaline = Anxiety
There is a fine line between excitement and anxiety because both states involve spikes in adrenaline. It is important to understand that the ASD individual will often lean toward anxiety (even if this looks like silent withdrawal or shutting down). Therefore, she is apt to feel excitement flip into anxiety. Anxiety is so inherent to autism that monitoring for triggers to adrenaline are important.
It is vital to understand that, even if the person wants to do something (like get presents on Christmas), the adrenaline of looking forward to something can still lead to a drain of energy and difficulty feeling calm and centered.
One tip is to look for opportunities to decrease adrenaline. For example, if the person wants to receive presents, consider whether they might like to know what they are getting ahead of "the big reveal" in front of others. Consider having the person open the present privately to decrease the adrenaline of an audience. There is also stress for the ASD person who feels she likes the gift but receives feedback that her face doesn't express appropriate signs of joy or gratitude. Another strategy would be to have the person open one gift a day for the week of Christmas. This helps avoid a "landslide" of new objects and experiences at one time.
2. What might this look like?
Instead of asking "Will you come to the family gathering?" or "Shouldn't you try to come?", consider thinking strategically. Try asking, "If you were able to participate in the gathering in some way, what might that look like?" Allow the person to participate in non-traditional ways. For example, prepare a quiet space for him to take breaks at intervals. Suggest he bring a calming item or activity such as headphones for music or a weighted blanket. Think about what food the person might eat rather than the traditional Christmas foods. For example, the ASD individual may repetitively eat hot dogs and tacos in his usual routine. Consider embracing this with gusto as part of the holiday celebration rather than requiring that he eat Grandma's sauage stuffing and Aunt Ruth's fruitcake.
3. Assign a role
When the individual is in the gathering, consider offering him a role. For example, instead of opening his present in front of everyone, suggest that he hand out gifts to others. Maybe he could keep a list of gifts for those planning on writing thank you cards later. This decreases the demand of his efforting to figure out how to join the group on his own, decide what to say, or handle an unstructured gathering.
4. Work with the individual to identify priorities
Decide what is most important to you about having her at the gathering. Perhaps it is most important that she eat the meal with others, or that she be present for Christmas songs around the family piano. Discuss with her that you would really love if she could do those two things and rest in between. This allows the individual to also comment on what would be the hardest for her. This kind of discussion helps everyone decide ahead of time what a "successful" gathering might look like.
5. Adjust expectations
It is very difficult to predict how resilient the individual may feel that day. Expect that certain things you plan will go brilliantly and certain things just won't turn out. Allow Christmas to be what it is this year, even if that means some of your Christmas wishes look different than you envisioned. Consider saying, "What will Christmas be like this year?" In the same way that some individuals are grieving this year on Christmas, or experiencing financial problems, the individual on the spectrum may be having a difficult or, alternately, a grounded season. Flexibility will allow the blessings that come to the gathering to mean even more.