How to Enjoy the Holidays as an Autistic Adult
Updated: Nov 7
By Patty Laushman
It's the holliest, jolliest time of the year - everybody loves the holidays! Right?
In fact, for some people, the holidays can be downright miserable. The holidays are a difficult time for many people, but for autistic people and those with other neurodiversities, they can be especially challenging. 🙁
The hustle and bustle of holiday parties and gatherings can be overwhelming, and the sensory overload from lights, decorations, and music can be too much to handle, not to mention the increased expectations for socializing in groups.
If you're an autistic adult dreading the holiday season, here are a few tips that may help you make it through to the other side - and maybe even have a little fun along the way. And if someone you love is autistic or otherwise neurodivergent, you'll find ideas on how to support them in creating memories you will both cherish.
The bottom line: less is more.
What Makes the Holidays More Challenging for Autistic People?
For many people, the holidays are a time of joy and celebration. However, for those on the autism spectrum, the festive season can be a time of great challenges. Here are a few reasons why that's the case.
For many people, the holidays are a time to enjoy big family and friend gatherings, festive decorations, and delicious food. However, for those with autism, the holidays can be a time of overwhelming sensory stimulation.
Bright lights and loud noises are often overwhelming for autistic people, who may become overloaded by all the stimuli. This can lead to anxiety and even meltdowns in some cases, making the already-challenging holiday season even more difficult.
Too Many Expectations
The added pressure of social expectations can make the season especially challenging. In addition to changes in routine, which can cause stress for people on the spectrum, autistic people may find social gatherings overwhelming and generally unpleasant.
The demands of holiday parties and family gatherings can leave autistic people feeling exhausted and stressed. In addition, the pressure to mask or conform to social norms can be especially taxing.
… and Then There's the Socializing
One of the main expectations during the holidays is that we will socialize with family and friends, often for extended periods of time. This can be difficult for autistic people who may find small talk exhausting or who prefer to spend more time alone.
They may need that alone time to recharge their batteries, and they may feel the holidays are a time they are constantly running on empty.
The holidays can be a hectic and chaotic time for anyone, but for autistic people, they can be especially anxiety-provoking. One factor that contributes to this is overscheduling. Autistic people who prefer to stick to a routine find the holiday season disrupts their schedule with its parties, family gatherings, and other events. This can trigger enough anxiety to make it difficult to enjoy the holidays.
Perhaps one of the biggest challenges is the lack of routine. For autistic people who rely on routines to help them feel safe and comfortable, the disruption of normal routines can be extremely stressful. Combine this with the added excitement, stimulation, and forced socialization, and it can become hard to cope.
How to Handle the Holidays When You Have Autism
Here are a few tips to help make the holidays more manageable for those with autism - and maybe even create a bit of neurodivergent-style holiday joy!
As much as you realistically can, plan ahead. This means making a list of all the activities you know will take place during the holidays, as well as any potential changes to routines. By being as prepared as possible for what lies ahead, people with autism can reduce their stress and anxiety levels.
In addition, it is also important to choose carefully when it comes to social activities. Not every party or gathering will be enjoyable, so decide in advance how many you will attend and then only attend those you think will be the most fun for you or those you feel you absolutely must attend.
And remember, it's okay to say no. The holidays are busy for most people. If you politely decline with, "Thank you for thinking of me. I wish I could attend, but I have too much going on that weekend," most people will understand.
Remove Any Obstacles You Can
One way to make the holidays more manageable is to remove any obstacles you can. For example, if large family gatherings are overwhelming, try to limit your exposure by attending only one or two events.
If you find certain foods or smells disagreeable, make sure to have a plan for snacks or eat ahead of time if you can. Try to find the best way to stay away from unpleasant odors or at least minimize your exposure.
And if holiday music or noise level is too jarring, bring a playlist of calming tunes to help you relax. If you know the host or hostess well enough, self-advocate and ask if the volume can be turned down or maybe even turned off.
Reserve the Right to Walk Away
One option is to simply walk away from situations that are proving to be too much. This might mean leaving a party early as politely and graciously as possible.
It's also important to set boundaries with family and friends, letting them know what you are and are not comfortable with. Above all, remember that you have the right to take care of yourself first and foremost, regardless of other people's preferences.
Identify Your Allies and Ask for Support When Needed
If possible, bring along a friend or family member who can act as your support person if you start to feel overwhelmed. Having someone there who understands your situation and can help advocate for you can make all the difference in whether or not you have a good experience.
Have Reasonable Expectations
Don't try to do too much or take on more than you can handle. It's okay to say no to invitations, take breaks when needed, and skip events that are likely to be too overwhelming. Focus on what you enjoy about the holidays and on spending time with the people you actually enjoy spending time with. Try to keep your routine as consistent as possible, and don't be afraid to ask for help if you need it.
Keep Your Routines as Similar as Possible
The holidays are a time of change, and for autistic adults, change can be difficult to deal with. If you can stick to your normal routine as much as possible, it will help you feel more secure and in control.
Make sure you allow yourself some flexibility though. Decide how YOU want to spend time with friends and family, and then negotiate ahead of time. Don't be afraid to say, "I would really like to spend time with you, but I'm afraid the plans we've created will be too much for me. What if we do X instead?"
Avoid Sensory Overload
Avoid sensory overload by limiting exposure to noise and other strong stimuli. This may mean avoiding crowded places, leaving a gathering early when you start to hit your limit, or eschewing that wool holiday sweater someone bought you.
It's also important to have a safe place to retreat to when needed. This could be a quiet room in your house or even just a corner where you can take a break from the action. In extreme cases, the bathroom, a closet, or a car can serve as a potential short-term sensory oasis.
Take Breaks as Needed
If things start to feel too overwhelming, step out for a break. Go for a walk around the block, take a moment to yourself in the bathroom, or step outside for some fresh air. It's okay to take a break; just make sure someone knows where you went so they don't worry about you.
Have an Escape Plan
If all else fails and you find yourself in an intolerable situation, have an escape plan ready so you can remove yourself from the situation quickly. Let your support person know your escape plan ahead of time so they can help facilitate it if necessary.
Practice Social Expectations Ahead of Time
If neurotypical behaviors like greetings and small talk will be expected, it can be helpful to rehearse them ahead of time. These function as social lubrication and help you integrate into the group.
If you know that you will be attending a holiday party, try to practice social interactions with a friend or family member to improve your confidence. People will respond to your confidence positively, making you feel more confident.
Plan for a Calm or Safe Space
Plan ahead for a calm or safe space for every event you attend. This may be a quiet room where you can go to escape, an unoccupied stairway or hallway, or try stepping outside for a bit of time. It's also important to have a backup plan in case things get too overwhelming.
Set Aside Extra Time to Do What You Enjoy
One way to handle the holidays to increase your own enjoyment is to set aside extra time for activities that you enjoy. This could be anything from reading a book to taking a hike to listening to your favorite music.
Schedule it in your calendar to increase the chances it happens and self-advocate by letting those around you know what you are doing. Taking some regular time out for yourself doing activities YOU enjoy will help you to recharge and make it more likely you enjoy the holiday season.
Don't Be Afraid to Say No
It is important to remember that you have the right to say no. If you don't want to go to the office holiday party or attend a crowded family gathering, it's okay to politely decline.
It's also important to set boundaries with well-meaning loved ones. If you don't want to discuss your autism or answer nosy questions about your personal life, you have the right to decline these discussions. It's okay to say, "I'd rather not discuss that. Can we talk about something else instead?"
The holidays can be tough for anyone, but they can be especially challenging for autistic adults when the activity preferences of those around them conflict with what is best for them. If you're struggling with the holiday season, remember that YOU get to decide how you spend your time. Leverage your support system if needed. Or just say no!
With a little planning and preparation, you can make it through the holidays with minimal stress—and maybe even enjoy yourself along the way!