The holidays can be tough on anyone. What they may not realize is that it can be particularly challenging for autistic people. As an active member of the autistic community, please allow me to present a variety of factors that make this otherwise joyous season difficult for autistics, and also offer advice on how you can make it more manageable for an autistic loved one.
Number 1: Sensory overload, or ‘sensory processing disorder,’ is often common with autism. What this means is that autistics experience the senses more intensely stimulated compared to yours or that of other neuro-typicals.
Consider those lights – does your holiday room have a lot of bright lights? Do they flash off and on? This is something that the autistic person in your life may have a hard time dealing with. To them, those lights are intensely brighter, and when they flash they can be extraordinarily distracting. Those, like me, with sensory processing disorder may be extra sensitive to light, making those lights that are pleasant to some, painful to autistic people. To circumvent this distracting discomfort, keep holiday lights turned down or off while in the company of an autistic individual.
Then there is sound overload. Look around you, for example, during a holiday party with a crowd of people talking at once. Are children playing with noisy toys in the room? Is holiday music playing loudly? Some of these may be reasons why your autistic loved one or guest appears distracted, uncomfortable, or downright miserable. ‘Central auditory processing disorder’ could be playing into this.
If there are a lot of people talking while, at the same time, the music is playing, don’t be surprised if that autistic child doesn’t hear you when you say, “Okay, little Johnny, it’s your turn to open a present.” Know that he is not ignoring you; rather, he may just be having a hard time registering that you have even said anything as he struggles to process the auditory information around him. All the noises are kind of mushing together into one confusing onslaught. Be warned that this type of sensory overload experience has been known to induce ‘meltdowns’ and ‘autistic shutdowns’ or other unpleasant hang-ups.
To prevent these hang-ups should a situation escalate, maybe turn down or turn off the music, ask people in the room to cease talking for just a moment, or offer the autistic person a pair of earplugs or headphones to help cancel or filter the sound.
There also exists an olfactory sensory overload, an intense sensitivity to scents. Is anyone wearing perfume or cologne? Try to visualize the strongest smelling potent perfume, cologne, body spray, or deodorant that you have ever encountered. Do these sensations seem overwhelming or noxious to you? Think about a time that you felt overpowered by an artificial scent. You could probably double this for someone with scent-based sensory processing disorder.
Carly Fleischmann, a well-known autistic author and advocate, describes how even the briefest whiff of a perfume in the air can overwhelm her entire system, making it impossible for her to carry on a conversation or other task until the scent has cleared away from her system.
What can you do to respectfully mitigate the effects of scents on the autistic individual? Ask your guests not to wear scented products, or the very least you can seat your autistic loved one or guest away from that perfume-drenched person in the room. Refrain from burning scented candles and other fragrance-emitting devices in the room, no matter how festive the scent.
Number 2: Social interaction and social stimulation struggles and strategies. It often goes without saying that a parent raising an autistic child takes a lot of patience and understanding. If that is you, you will probably find that you especially need extra patience and understanding during a social holiday.
We have already covered central auditory processing disorder. Again, please understand that a noisy room will always make it hard for an autistic person to realize that you are speaking to them, make out what you’re saying, and engage in any conversation. Again, you can’t prevent this problem but try making the room as quiet as possible, given the circumstances.
Now, let’s discuss eye contact.
The autistics in your life probably won’t make as much eye contact as you’d like or expect from a person during holiday events or any other days. You may find that when they are stressed they make even less eye contact. You may even observe that they don’t make eye contact at all.
We individuals of the autistic self-advocacy community believe that no autistic should be forced to maintain eye contact for the sake of neuro-typicals. (Actually, we kindly ask you to get over this insistence.)
Keeping with the topic of social interaction, let’s talk about autistic ‘self-taught scripting.’
Despite what many neuro-typicals may think, scripting, or the art of an autistic person using a pre-rehearsed line of dialogue that we have designed, memorized, and filed away for future social interactions we encounter in this neuro-typical world, is quite useful to us.
I promise you, if an autistic person possesses a verbal capability of expression, they are using scripting to get them past social interactions that otherwise would be difficult to manage during the holidays, and the rest of the year. If you have raised your autistic child with the intent of being polite, they probably have worked out a script for those holiday gifts they receive with less enthusiasm than those that were on their gift list. If you are looking for that genuine enthusiastic look from your autistic gift receiver, try asking them what they want ahead of time. Do not assume that they want what other kids want, or what you would want for them. Remember, autistic kids – people – are quite different from you and others who are, in fact, neuro-typical.
You know, the greatest gift you could ever give an autistic person – for the holidays or any day of the year – is simply to engage with them in a conversation about their special interest.
If you have paid any attention to this darling autistic in your life, you should at least be aware of one or two of their special interests. Few things delight an autistic more than describing all the facets about their special interest they find intriguing. Set aside a good chunk of time and listen carefully enough to develop some follow-up questions. You might actually find yourself cherishing the moment, looking at the face of that amazing autistic in your life beaming back at you as they uncover (in great detail) every aspect of their particular special interest.
Please understand that most autistics, like any introvert, have limited social energy. It might be advisable to allow your socially anxious autistic a couple hours to decompress before guests arrive. I also advise allowing time for your autistic to socially decompress after the guests leave, or during time when things quiet down. Know that, for many autistics, social interactions require much bravery, and they can be rendered quite exhausted after time spent interacting socially with people, especially those they may not be too familiar with.
The most important thing to remember when helping your beloved autistic through the holiday season is to let them be their autistic selves.
Let her play with her toys and in her unconventional autistic ways. Let him practice his ‘stims.’ Let them have breaks from socializing, and don’t expect everything they say in the moment to make sense in the context of what was being discussed, and always be aware of their sensory issues.
This has been an analysis on why holiday times can be difficult for those autistics you want to share the joys of the holidays with. I hope you are able to use this advice effectively for the sake of your autistic loved one and for yours as well. Happy Holidays!
Chuck is a contributing writer and autism advocate from Mattapoisett. As an autistic, he can be relied upon as an authority on the topic of autism with firsthand experience and ethos to effectively describe the autistic experience.
The Autistic Experience
By Charles McIntyre