How to Manage Holiday Stress for Autistic People?
Updated: Sep 24
Many people consider the holiday season to be a fun, relaxing, and joyful time of year, but for autistic people, these times may be hectic and actually more of a burden. Autistic people struggle with social interaction, sensory impairments, executive functioning, anxiety, and
depression, and the pandemic seems to have exacerbated the problem.
Many people are now more comfortable with social gatherings again but this can create stress for autistic people. Holiday parties, seasonal delicacies, decorations, additional gatherings, unexpected presents, and even days off might tilt the balance, leaving someone on the spectrum exhausted.
If you're autistic or have a loved one who is, there are ways to manage holiday stress. Be on the lookout for signals of anxiety such as the fight, flight or freeze (stress induced breakdowns, outbursts, tensions or self isolation), since they are all indications that the individual might be in distress. The pleasure and enjoyment of the holidays may be lost due to these changes, transition, coping limitations, and challenges, which may be stressful.
However, this list of ideas might go a long way toward helping manage holiday stress for autistic people.
Prepare and Hone Your Skills
Please keep in mind that these are general tips and not meant to replace therapy and coaching, which would be individualized for you. If you or a loved one is autistic, it's helpful to figure out how much preparation may be required.
It can be helpful to prepare for social situations with a script ahead of time. With scripts, you can plan what you are going to say and practice before the event.
If you're going to a friend or family member's place for dinner, inquire about the menu beforehand. Bring a variety of meals for yourself to consume if the meals are bothersome to you.
It can be helpful to practice communications skills such as small talk, asking about other people's kid's activities, or how they are doing in school. If someone recently got a job promotion, it can be nice to inquire about it. If you run out of ideals, Canadians always love talking about the weather.
Taking pauses/breaks throughout the meal as needed is all right.
Preparation: If you or a loved one is prone to anxiety while anticipating a future event, you may want to modify the number of days before that occasion. Use a calendar or create an outline of what to expect at an event. You may benefit from slow exposure to noise and light ahead of time. Have family and friends email you pictures of their decorated homes in advance. Put on some festive music and go with the flow. If you have a child with autism, using FaceTime to introduce your child to new people, places, and noises is a wonderful method to do this. Tell them what to anticipate when it comes to gift giving. Rehearse how you would respond if you received or didn't get a present.
Coping with Sensory Overstimulation
It is possible to have trouble coping when there are too many people chatting at the same time, people ripping up and crushing packing materials, holiday songs in the background and glassware clinking together to toasting, and unusual scents of food, candles, cooking, and so on. Consider stocking a "coping kit/sensory kit" and knowing how to use it ahead of time.
You could want to add items like headphones or an iPod with your favourite tunes or pleasant scented stickers, stress balls, and fidget items. A weighted lap snake can be a good temporary solution with similar benefits to your weighted blanket, if you are already using one. Also, a large exercise ball or trampoline may be found in some homes and can be a great sensory break. Taking a dog for a walk or walking around the block and doing some deep breathing is also a good way to get yourself centred again.
Bring Your Usual Routine
Many individuals find the holidays stressful. If you're attending an event, you may encounter a variety of schedules, cuisines, and people. A feeling of normality may be restored if you can maintain your morning and nighttime routines. To make the days seem more like they are always at home, include things like meditating, deep breathing, or watching a favourite program into your daily routine.
Routines and schedule are vital even when you are travelling. Among them are eating times, sleep rituals, and hygiene regimens. This will offer a sense of familiarity and comfort. In addition, make sure that your familiar and enjoyable items are on hand.
Self-awareness is the key to a successful life. Even if your whole family is meeting at Grandma's home, there are alternatives in which you may still take part. Make a one-hour reservation so that you may depart before your senses are overwhelmed.
To minimize misunderstandings, it's a good idea to make your limits clear to family and friends in advance.
Prepare Relaxation Activities
Mindfulness and deep-breathing practices might help you relax. Progressive Muscle Relaxation is also a helpful relaxation technique. It can help you deal with stressful or anxiety-inducing situations.
You don't have to make your holidays perfect. Norms evolve as families change and evolve. Take a chance on creating new rituals. When situations don't go as planned, be prepared to make changes.
During the holidays, we often see members of our extended family that we don't get to see daily. If you have autism or have a loved one with autism, phone ahead and inquire if there is a quiet area where you or your loved one can relax and try the other strategies described above.
Try to enjoy most of your time together, but don't forget to attend to your needs... The length of your stay may be limited. You (and your friends and family) should choose what interests are essential to all of you. Compromising with the family may be a better solution than the holidays being spoiled.
Autism spectrum disorder and other types of neurodiversity is becoming better recognized and diagnosed. Clients are also developing a better understanding of their needs through their own research. Unfortunately however, many therapists, clinicians, coaches and doctors are still not yet trained in recognizing and supporting the needs of neurodivergent clients. I specialize in supporting clients with this area of need and would be happy to work with you.
Contact me at (647) 503 - 0271 or click on the contact page if you identify with autism, ADHD, learning differences, or giftedness.