Shannon Clement is an Auckland mother of two, one on the autism spectrum and the other not. She’s also been diagnosed with autism and shares her top tips for coping with Christmas.
I used to wonder what was wrong with me when I started panicking and needing to escape pre-Christmas shopping crowds while everyone around me seemed so happy. But, having been diagnosed with ASD, I can now appreciate (and forgive) my challenges, particularly around Christmas when social pressures elevate. Even before diagnosis, I had quietly created a lot of coping mechanisms that allowed me to get through this time of year relatively happily. Hopefully, the following approaches will help this season go more smoothly for you too.
Buy gifts early or online
Gift shopping in a busy pre-Christmas mall is my personal idea of hell so I just don’t do it. If I can’t get out there before the rush, I do it online from home. Sometimes the actual purchase can’t be completed online, but the research can, allowing a quick in-and-out trip to the exact right shop.
Organise your helpfulness
The arbitrary and busy nature of helping out on the day, whether it’s in the kitchen or with the kids, is often confusing and awkward but that’s no excuse to avoid helping. By offering in advance to take on a particular task, you can prepare and feel confident that you’ll know what you’re doing on the day. Pick something that plays on your strengths and, if you work better on your own than as a group, choose something that is best done by one person. Some ideas: Create a beautiful table setting, take charge of one dish, drinks or snacks, organise a backyard cricket match or direct an indoor video/board game/competition.
There’s no avoiding that Christmas Day is likely to be a very social, and therefore potentially draining, time. Take care of yourself in the lead-up and the come-down. I tend to spend some quality time on my own the day before and after Christmas Day – a sort of prep and recovery time. This could be a good time to schedule some time with your special interest.
Say yes to the important stuff
As tempting as it is to stay home at times, I force myself to attend the really important social engagements. For me, they include the official work Christmas party, family meals and a photo opportunity with Santa for my kids. There are always plenty to choose from but, by committing to just a few, you’ll avoid burning out before the big day and can let the others go in the knowledge that you’re making a smart and measured judgement call.
Scope out a chill-out spot or person
On arrival for Christmas dinner or, if possible, before the day, I tend to seek out a spot that will take me away from group noise and busyness if/when I need it. This is not a hiding spot to skulk in all day long, but a sanctuary to recharge in as needed. In the absence of a place to be alone, think about the people you are most comfortable with and aim to generate a few one-on-one conversations with them. Odds are there may be more than one autistic person in your family and they’ll be looking similar low-key engagement to you.
Those who are not on the spectrum will often make assumptions about what they believe to be “common sense”. They may expect that you know when to offer to help, whether you can or should help yourself to food/drinks and how or where you should settle in as a guest. When I’m unsure, I ask outright. Sometimes people might think me a little strange for this but I figure it’s far better to be upfront about clarifying expectations than avoiding them.
Prepare for change
Even the best-laid plans can fall apart and, with a large group of different personalities involved, it’s inevitable that some of your ideas or plans of the day will be thrown out. At any social event I start out in the knowledge that changes will happen, that I might not like some of those changes and that, in the interests of group harmony, I will need to take a few deep breaths and roll with it.
This article originally appeared in Altogether Autism Journal Christmas 2014