Autistic Christmas

It’s Christmas time again, and as with every year, I am hearing everywhere about how much autistic people hate Christmas. My family, almost all of us autistic, are atypically atypical this way. We love Christmas! As with so many autistic things, there are three things that create this love/hate polarisation.

  1. Sensory: Some people find the lights, crowds, and incessant Christmas music including brass bands in the town centre to be overwhelming. We are not fans of crowds, so we tend to avoid the things that have them. We love the sparkly lights, soft and fluffy things, and the rhythm of repetitive mechanical toys.
  2. Social: I found out just last year that some parents who are unhappy about their autistic children ‘not liking Christmas’ are going on visiting tours of various friends and family and expect their autistic family members to go along! As with crowds, if social stuff causes you stress at Christmas, don’t do it! We enjoy the opportunity to spend time with people we like, and just don’t spend time with people we don’t like.
  3. Predictability: This is what the bulk of this post is about, so read on. Increasing predictability can also help with the previous two aspects.

One thing our family quite like about Christmas is the predictability. “Predictability??” I hear you cry. “Surely the whole problem with Christmas is how unpredictable it is!” Full disclosure: we have a large dose of ADHD and/or inertia (see the rest of this site) along with our autism and this interferes with creating and maintaining a regular daily or weekly routine. This means that we don’t have that baseline predictability that can be upset by a strange happening like a holiday.

For us, Christmas is the only time of year where for two days, and to a lesser extent the entire month, we know exactly what we will eat, what we will do, what music we listen to, and who we’ll spend time with. It even gives an acceptable topic of conversation in most settings. (That would not include autistic settings, where liking Christmas can make you feel like a traitor to the cause.) For 48 hours in the year every minute of my day is predetermined and largely the same as last year, and all the years before it, with only minimal drift gradually over the years as the composition of the family changes and traditions come and go. Bliss!

This predictability depends on consistency in routines and traditions, and the ability to remember those from one Christmas to the next. For people who are young, have cognitive disabilities or have a poor memory, this can be a challenge. My partner had a particularly difficult time with it because he comes from a culture with slightly different traditions and so it was difficult to keep his memory of those separate from the new routine with our family. This, along with a deeply surprise-averse family member led to the advent of the Christmas guide.

The Christmas guide is one of several things that make Christmas more tolerable for us. We also have:

  • Very clear guidelines about when everyone is expected to be together or not.
  • No TV in the living room (only public space in the house) unless everyone is playing a new game together.
  • Permission to leave and have time alone, have a nap, etc..
  • Not touring family, friends and acquaintances on Christmas day or through the season.
  • No specific deadline for exactly when dinner will be served.
  • A slow and steady approach to opening presents so it doesn’t become a frenzy of flying wrapping.

So, some autistic people hate Christmas, but not all do, and to some extent this may be to do with demands and expectations, predictability and neurodivergent orientation of the environment and activities.

Karen L Buckle

I am a PhD student studying autistic inertia. I am interested in this topic because I suffer from these problems and because I know that they are common and seriously problematic for a lot of autistic people. If you are interested in being kept up to date on my research, including participation opportunities and updates on findings, leave a comment or email me at karenleneh.buckle@postgrad.manchester.ac.uk.

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