When decorations are in every store, the holiday season is in full swing and people with Asperger’s Syndrome or NLD of all ages face LOTS of challenges. Navigating these challenges successfully takes planning, chill skills and hopefully, finding some understanding among loved ones. I’ll refer to just AS, but the same ideas apply for NLD as well.

The social demands of Christmas are obvious. All ages have to face parties at school, work and in families. Sometimes people who are challenging or provocative are inescapable. Planning ahead is important  for making graceful exits when needed, limiting socializing to small numbers at a time and having someone who “gets it” who can intervene when necessary helps.

Managing the pace of festivities is critical. Often there’s too many social situations without a break, moving from one venue to another or one event to the next. People with AS will need down time to be quiet and refuel. It might be important to skip a less important activity to have the stamina to go to another.

There’s family traditions to observe. The expected show of happiness and engagement can be hard to muster. Shows of expected emotions are not an AS strength, especially on demand. Many aren’t that facially expressive even when they’re pleased.

People with Aspergers are extremely honest; they will not necessarily say the “right” thing just because it’s what’s expected. Grandma does not want honesty in responding to her hand knit sweater; she wants enthusiasm. Parents want to hear that it’s great to see an uncle, not that he’s annoying. Ideally, loved ones are educated to understand the family member with AS. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case, and this creates stress and even family fights.

Another aspect of social demand is figuring out what people want, gifting, and handling those expectations at work (secret Santas, what to bring to a party, etc). People with AS usually are challenged anticipating what others think. Partners need to be clear about what they want. Expecting to be surprised with the gift demonstrating perfect understanding is a setup for disappointment. It can be important to ask co-workers or teachers what’s expected.

Schedules change around Christmas breaks, preparations and parties, which means flexibility and handling structural changes is a demand. This is very difficult for anyone for whom consistency is important. To the extent possible (especially for children), keep some semblance of normality in the daily schedule, and some structure during the days. Knowing in advance what’s happening and having life be predictable helps.

The sensory overload of Christmas is also problematic. Stores, parties and family events can all be noisy for someone with auditory sensitivity. The lights and visual stimulation of stores and festivities can be overwhelming. Even meals can be problematic for those whose diets reflect sensitivity to tastes and textures. Having quiet spaces to retreat to is a must. Some shopping malls have autism-friendly shopping time before or after regular hours where lights are dimmer and the the music is quieter. 

It’s important for parents especially to remember that any kind of stimulation can become overwhelming, even when it’s positive or long awaited. Parents can be confused if a child runs out of a party or has a meltdown on a special vacation. To the extent possible, managing the level of excitement and stimulation, awareness of sensory overload and having a predictable schedule will help.

Managing all this adds a burden to the stress of holiday preparation. It can also be disappointing, because even the best intended plans can go awry. “Getting it,” having realistic expectations, pre-planning and taking time outs as needed (with no blame) go a long way to having a good time.

Photo by Editor B