Autism Advent Calendar: Things to Know About Autism and Christmas
Christmas: love it or hate it, here in the UK, it’s at the forefront of life for a month (or more) each year. Everywhere you turn there are cards and carols, trinkets and tinsel, puddings and parcels and partridges in pear trees. For the whole of December, Christmas takes life as we know it and turns it upside down… and for an autistic person, this can be a huge adjustment.
Autism is a lifelong developmental condition, characterised (among other things) by atypical social and communication skills, restrictive and repetitive interests, and sensory differences. Each of these facets can be impacted by Christmas at different times, in very different ways, varying widely from person to person. Our Autism Advent Calendar outlines 25 things to know about autism and Christmas:
1. Autism and Fairy Lights
Fairy lights (or Christmas lights) are a big part of the general merriment of Christmas; but they can provoke a more intense reaction in autistic people. Some of us become overwhelmed by bright lights, whilst others find them a source of intense joy. Autistic people who are visual sensory seekers can take huge pleasure in fairy lights, even more so than neurotypical people.
2. Autism and Holiday Rituals
Many people have rituals surrounding Christmas, but for autistic people, these can be hugely important. We find great comfort in structure and routine, and some of us have carried out the same specific Christmas rituals for years.
This can be harmless, but becomes problematic if we are inflexible and unable to accept even minor and/or necessary changes. For example, if we are used to spending Christmas day with a family member, and that family member moves house, that change might upend our entire Christmas experience.
3. Autism and Christmas Jumpers
We all have a Christmas jumper that gets pulled out from the back of the wardrobe in December. Love them or hate them, for autistic people, sensory issues can play a huge part in our feelings toward the Christmas jumper. Textures like wool can be especially aggravating to those who are hypersensitive to clothing; however, their baggy cut can be a dream come true for autistic people who prefer loose clothing. Even those who like compression from their clothes have the option to wear something underneath, so it’s a win-win in that regard.
Personally, I dread the month of Christmas jumpers, because it means re-working my entire wardrobe. Despite what you might believe, personal style can be hugely important to autistic people, and wearing something bright and ‘silly’ like a Christmas jumper can make us horribly self-conscious. Not to mention, branching out from our everyday clothing repertoire to wear something ‘different’ is rarely something we enjoy.
4. Autism and the ‘Christmas Do’
Whether it’s work, school or family, the month of December usually comes with a tidal wave of parties and social events. Contrary to popular belief, many autistic people enjoy parties; and having a full calendar can be an especially welcome sight to people who have both autism and ADHD, who might require more constant stimulation.
However, a lot of us come to dread the onslaught of parties. The chaos and noise (bonus points if there are balloons) can be hell on the senses, and the pressure of socialising can overshadow any enjoyment we might otherwise get out of the experience. The ‘Work Do’ can be especially stressful, as it involves adjusting our demeanour, ‘letting loose’ and having fun with people around whom we might usually be quite formal. Even if we enjoy partying with others, the proximity of one party to another can deny us the crucial ‘down time’ which many of us need to recover and recharge our social batteries.
5. Autism and Reacting to Presents
To a neurotypical person, this might seem like a pedantic and insignificant issue. But for an autistic person, the social pressure to ‘react right’ to a present can be crippling. Many of us struggle with being the centre of attention, so having all eyes on us as we peel off wrapping paper is an uncomfortable experience; and when the present itself emerges, it all comes to a head.
We know we have to look pleased, even if we’re not. But from heavy maskers to those with flat affects and blank expressions, autistic people tend to have a complicated relationship with portraying our emotions. For many of us, what we look like on the outside doesn’t always reflect what we feel on the inside. We can obsess over whether we look happy enough with our gift, or not even realise that we seem ungrateful or upset.
On the other hand, some of the most joyful reactions you will ever see is that of the autistic person who has just received exactly the thing they have always wanted. Some of us can’t help but wear our hearts on our sleeves, which can be a wonderful sight to behold when things go right.
6. Autism and Sugar and Alcohol
Christmas is typically a time of excess; more spending, more parties, and more food and drink than any other month of the year. General food issues aside, one of the more surprising autistic traits is being highly susceptible to the effects of consumable substances- for example, sugar and alcohol- than neurotypical people.
Some of us use this to our advantage; one whiff of hard spirits and suddenly we’re the life of the office Christmas party. But when a little goes a long way, self-medicating social anxiety with alcohol can be a very dangerous thing. And for younger neurodivergents (and us adults who like chocolate more than we should), the Christmas day sugar indulgence inevitably leads to a sugar crash, which can exacerbate any burnout we may already be dealing with.
7. Autism and Christmas Shopping
There are two kinds of people; those who love Christmas shopping, and those who feel a chasm of dread open in their stomach at the very mention of Primark. Though not all autistic people dislike shopping, the very nature of the Christmas period adds layers to the experience which we are likely to find challenging.
Firstly, shopping in December can be a sensory hell. Moving from the freezing cold outdoors to the sweltering hot shop interior (and who actually takes their coats off to shop?), the crowds of people, the repetitive music, the piles of discarded clothing and pastel Secret Santa toiletries clogging up the aisles. If the scene described made you panic a little, then congratulations; you may be one of us.
Aside from this, the act of Christmas shopping can be hugely overwhelming for an autistic person. We often have difficulty with things like choice, so being presented with the same item in six different colours can be paralysingly stressful. We can struggle with queues, which tend to be miles long at this time of year, and these pressures combined with sensory overload can very quickly lead to a meltdown. And that is the last thing you want to happen in a packed shop.
8. Autism and Burnout
Most people will experience burnout at some point in their lives; but autistic burnout can not only be more frequent, but more debilitating. And Christmas just so happens to create the perfect conditions for it.
The weeks leading up to Christmas and the New Year can often bring a new social event every week, if not every day. Some autistic people are social butterflies, and thrive with a full calendar; but many of us struggle with the lack of down time needed to re-charge our social batteries. This is only exacerbated if you are a people-pleaser, which many high-masking autistic people tend to be. We might say yes to every single thing we’re invited to, even if we know full well it’s going to wear us down.
Burnout is not only caused by frequent socialising, but the nature of that socialising; for example, high-pressure situations where you have to be cheerful and react appropriately to presents, or having to converse politely with some distant aunt who has far more opinions about your life than she should. We can also experience burnout from pushing ourselves too hard; so the never ending to-do list of buying presents, wrapping presents, putting the tree up, watching the school concert and making gingerbread men can have a long-lasting effect on our wellbeing.
It’s easier said than done, I know. But this Christmas, try and slow down a bit.
9. Autism and Christmas Dinner
For many people, neurotypical or neurodivergent, the thought of Christmas dinner is enough to fill us with longing. But if there’s one thing that tends to unite autistic people, it is that we have big opinions about our food.
There’s no one-rule-fits-all when it comes to autism and food; however, some common preferences are making sure food doesn’t touch, having a specific order to eat things in, using particular utensils, and preferring a ‘beige diet’ (plain carbohydrates). This can sometimes be tricky with Christmas dinner, which involves a lot of different components, including liquids like gravy and cranberry sauce. Even if we like a certain food, we may only like it made by a particular person or to a particular recipe (when I was younger I only liked carrots when my Gran made them, and absolutely would not eat anyone else’s). This can quite easily cause the chef some offence, especially if we struggle to communicate our preferences tactfully.
Food aside, Christmas dinner is usually a highly social occasion, which can be stressful in itself. We have to concentrate on making polite small talk whilst also concentrating on eating (no I don’t care that I’m not holding my fork properly); and on top of that, many of us live with the co morbid condition misophonia, or hypersensitivity to certain sounds. So if you want to lash out with the carving knife when you hear someone chewing with their mouth open, you’re not the only one.
10. Autism and Religion
Whilst Christmas these days has drifted away from religion, it is still a factor that crops up here and there. Every autistic person will have a different attitude towards organised religion, but it can be common to flock to the extremes: to love it, or to hate it.
Some autistic people can struggle to understand the concept of an ideology which cannot be proven with factual evidence. We tend to think in black and white terms; things are either right or wrong, and if we can’t find the logic to prove it right, it therefore must be wrong. Though not always the case, we can also be less likely to find comfort in the elements of religion which are designed to be comforting (e.g. the afterlife). Our communication differences mean we can sometimes be a little blunt, which can be an issue when discussing emotive topics like religion. Essentially, we’re not always the most tactful of people.
On the other hand, some autistic people thrive within religious communities due to their emphasis on ritual and tradition. It can be easy to hide our idiosyncrasies in circles which are underpinned by rules; we don’t have to worry about how to act and what to say when we can default to such a massive mutual interest as religion. Some autistic people even develop a special interest in a specific religion or philosophy.
11. Autism and Gift Giving
‘Christmas isn’t about presents’, proclaims Nan over her fifth glass of sherry. You nod politely; but you also know that Nan is full of sh*t, and that Christmas is absolutely about presents. And finding the right present for someone is hard.
We’ve already talked about the hellscape that is Christmas shopping; but even before we step onto the high street, autistic people can have difficulty coming up with gift ideas. We can put far too much pressure on ourselves to get the ‘right’ gift; or we can stray to the other extreme, and not regard it as a priority. Executive functioning issues mean that we can easily forget about buying presents, or leave it too late. On a much broader scale, disabled people earn on average £3,731 less annual pay than non-disabled people, meaning that we may have far less disposable income to spend on presents.
On the bright side, Christmas presents align perfectly with the autistic phenomenon of ‘pebbling’. Named after the act whereby penguins give pebbles to other penguins they like, many autistic people show affection by giving thoughtful, nuanced gifts to their loved ones, and derive great satisfaction and happiness from doing so.
12. Autism and Loneliness
Christmas is a time when friends and family get together to enjoy each other’s company; and this can be incredibly difficult for those who have little in the way of either. Though autistic people can have extensive social circles, many of us struggle to make and even to retain friends, and so we might have fewer invites to Christmas parties than our neurotypical counterparts. Seeing practically everyone around us making merry with their loved ones, can make our own isolation sting all the more keenly.
Even if we do have people to spend Christmas with, the feeling of loneliness can be just as hard as the reality. Many of us can feel disjointed and misunderstood, somehow out of step with the rest of the world; we think differently, we act differently, and nobody seems to understand us. Perhaps we have to mask around our extended family to get through dinner, and present a face which is not ours. Perhaps we drink to survive the office Christmas party, and perhaps these people wouldn’t enjoy our company if we were our true selves. These thoughts can manifest in feelings of intense loneliness, even in a room full of people.
13. Autism and Expectations and Letdowns
Do you ever find yourself really looking forward to an event, and then the big day arrives, and you feel sort of… deflated? Being disappointed by something not living up to our expectations can be a particular issue for autistic people, as our expectations tend to be so specific. Christmas is a perfect example of this; we have our rituals and our traditions, our annual customs which have to go exactly the way we want them to or it’s the end of the world. Of course, things rarely go exactly to plan. So Christmas day can often prove a disappointment to some degree.
Christmas burnout can be a huge factor behind this. We tend to forget how run-down we ended up the year before, and therefore don’t anticipate it happening again. And it’s hard to properly enjoy ourselves when we’re secretly just longing for bed.
14. Autism and Hugs and Kisses
Physical affection can be a notorious pitfall for autistic people. Though not always the case, many of us have a complicated relationship with physical endearment; we can find it too intense, too complicated, or even painful at times. This could be the result of sensory issues, having difficulty with the physical sensation of touching another person, be it skin texture, deep pressure, etc.
There is also a significant social pressure involved in physical affection. In the Christmas family gathering, for example, working out who to hug and who to offer an awkward smile-and-nod can be a minefield. Do you kiss your grandmother on the cheek, or kiss the air next to it? Has your teenage cousin aged out of tolerating an awkward one-armed hug? God forbid we should engage in anything but a strong handshake with that one uncle. Perhaps if our relatives came with a traffic light system of who to hug and who not to hug, we might have an easier time with physical affection; and perhaps it would make us uncomfortable regardless.
15. Autism and Christmas Music
Christmas music is a polarising topic within any demographic, let alone autistic people. On the one hand, it can sync perfectly with the autistic need for repetition; it’s the same handful of songs every year, give or take a few additions and covers (which even the neurotypical population seems to groan about). Like all that is sparkly and magical about the festive season, Christmas music is something which can easily spark autistic joy, and is a great way to connect with others and feel truly ‘in the moment’.
However, if we aren’t fans of Christmas music, its oppressive presence throughout December can have a more harmful effect on us than you might realise. Our sensory sensitivities might mean that Mariah Carey shrieking down the tannoys at Tesco for the tenth time that week might not just be irritating, but physically painful, depending on the volume, playback quality, etc.
16. Autism and Endings
Though they are technically separate entities, Christmas and the New Year are often interlinked in our collective psyche; and so too is the concept of ending. This can be a point of significant emotion for everybody; and for many autistic people, endings are something with which we struggle hugely.
For one thing, ending something implies that it is complete; and as discussed, we can often feel let down or wanting more if our experience of an event (e.g. Christmas) didn’t live up to our expectations. The end means the experience is over, and there is no further opportunity to do it right. This can sometimes translate to an intense, and often unrealistic desire for closure.
Secondly, endings often denote a degree of emotion which may make us uncomfortable, either others’ or our own. For example, at the strike of midnight on New Year’s Eve, we might find a room full of singing, hugging and crying people to be utterly overwhelming; or we might find our own reflections upon the year gone to be ‘too much’ for us to linger on. Moreover, an ending means a new beginning; and this can be a huge source of anxiety for autistic people in itself.
17. Autism and Community
Whether we mean a large, established community like a church or a school, or a more informal one like a friendship group or family, this is a concept which is highlighted significantly by Christmas. There seem to be groups of people wherever we go; from the choir in the shopping centre, to the Secret Santa groups, to the teams in the festive pub quiz.
Despite its strengths, being autistic can sometimes be incredibly isolating, especially if you do not engage with many (or any) other autistic people. We may feel fully in sync with the neurotypical population; but, more often than not, we can have the feeling of being an alien stranded on earth, desperately trying to blend in. Being surrounded by communities might not only emphasise our loneliness, but our lack of belonging, in a world that was never really made for us.
18. Autism and New Things
Though a Christmas present can be anything from a gift card to money to concert tickets, it is almost inevitable that December will bring an influx of stuff. Secret Santas, stocking fillers, socks and aftershave and bath bombs; and no matter how grateful you may be for the sentiment, you will inevitably end up with a sackful of items you have no idea what to do with.
Due to our affinity with patterns and order, autistic people tend to prefer their spaces to be organised in a very particular way; therefore an influx of clutter can be very stressful for us. A messy room can be overstimulating, which, heaped on top of the usual Christmas burnout, can easily lead to a meltdown.
If we receive an item we could genuinely use, we may become anxious if we already have something filling the role of that item; for example, it took me years to come around to the idea that I could own more than one rucksack. Even if we specifically asked for a new item, our anthropomorphising of inanimate objects (assigning it human traits and feelings) means we can find it difficult to replace an existing possession, even if it is old or broken.
19. Autism and House Guests
Every household has a different setup for Christmas day, and for some, this will mean welcoming friends and family into their homes. We’ve already discussed the complex relationship between autism and socialising; but when it comes to house guests, the social pressure has an entirely new dimension to contend with.
Depending on how long the guests are due to stay, our socialising skills (and enjoyment) can be significantly tested when there is no definitive end in sight, or when that end is far away. Autistic people are often better at and get more pleasure out of socialising when they see it as a temporary state, and know that they can escape when they need to; but when the socialising is happening in your own home, not only is it harder to get away from, but the haven to which you would usually retreat becomes the very place that you need to escape.
Autistic people can also often have a harder time sharing our spaces than our neurotypical peers. We tend to have strong feelings as to how things should be- which mug should be used for which beverage, which TV channel should be watched with breakfast, which way round the toilet roll should go- and can really struggle if our routines and surroundings are altered. We can also have a hard time sharing our personal possessions with others, even seemingly insignificant things like cutlery and bedding.
20. Autism and Money
Although there are many ways to pull off Christmas on a budget, it is typically a time of enormous expense. Presents, party clothes, food, drinks and events; chances are if you want to participate, you’re going to have to put your hand in your pocket.
Whilst autism doesn’t necessarily equate to less money, it can have a significant impact on our finances. As with any disability, being autistic can incur expenses which neurotypical people don’t have to pay; specific clothing, sensory items, access to quiet spaces in events, etc. A more significant issue is our ability to earn money; we may only be able to work part time or temporarily, or be unable to work at all, and schemes like the Personal Independence Payment are notoriously difficult for those with hidden disabilities to obtain. On average, disabled people earn 17% less annual pay than non-disabled people, which increases to 33.5% for disabled people. We may be unable to buy the quantity or quality of Christmas gifts that we would like, or have to pass on events because we can’t afford them; and this can hugely increase our isolation and perception as ‘outsiders’.
21. Autism and Extended Family
If there’s ever a time for getting together with distant relatives, it’s Christmas. Whilst we might be excited to see our favourite cousins and wine aunts and crotchety old grandpas, autistic people in particular can have a hard time when it comes to extended family, and other ‘surface-level’ relationships.
Besides the usual anxieties that can come with socialising, it can be difficult to navigate a person whom we might only see briefly here and there, yet with whom we are expected to form a genuine and meaningful relationship. Many autistic people require a substantial amount of time, shared experiences and mutual interests before they truly feel comfortable around a person.
We can also struggle to moderate our characteristics to be palatable to a particular social dynamic; for example, if we swear and blaspheme in front of our friends, we might find it impossible not to swear and blaspheme in front of Grandma. Some of us swing the other way, switching our personalities like pairs of socks to suit every new person we come into contact with; but this is a form of masking, and is likely to contribute to burnout in the long run. Essentially, we can choose between keeping the peace at the expense of our mental health, or being misunderstood, ostracised or openly criticised for being ourselves.
On a lighter note, ‘face-blindness’ is a phenomenon which disproportionately affects neurodivergent people; so if your autistic uncle absolutely never gets your name right, try not to take it personally.
22. Autism and Commercialism
If you roll your eyes every time you hear about how commercialised Christmas is nowadays, then you’re not the only one. The festive season seems to divide people into two camps: the Christmas-lovers, and the grinches. Whilst autistic people are not necessarily more likely to fall into the latter camp, we may be less interested in adhering to social trends that commercialism caters to; for example, sending Christmas cards.
We may also be far more vocal about these discrepancies than our neurotypical counterparts. This could be for several reasons; for one, we tend to feel very passionately about the political stances we take, so if (for example) we think wrapping paper is bad for the environment, we may feel strongly compelled to convince those around us. Furthermore, our communication differences mean that if a person is becoming bored or disgruntled with our preaching, we might not be able to read this in their body language.
23. Autism and Winter Weather
Sadly, the classic Christmas snow we see in ornaments and greetings cards are largely a thing of the past. Nevertheless, December is usually a very cold, dark, wet time of year, and this can impact autistic people in several ways. One thing we can have trouble with is temperature regulation; this means that our bodies do not naturally adjust our temperatures to compensate for our surroundings, so if the space we’re in is cold, we can become very cold.
On top of this, we can also be hyper or hyposensitive to temperature. This will be different for each individual, and can range from us feeling cold to the point of physical pain, to not feeling it at all, despite our bodies still being cold. Being hyposensitive to temperature can quickly become dangerous if we do not realise we are getting too cold, and may become ill as a result. This can be exacerbated if we have issues with changing our clothing to suit weather conditions. Autistic people are also more susceptible to mental health issues like SAD- or Seasonal Affective Disorder- which rears its ugly head during the long winter nights.
24. Autism and Making things
Dated as it may sound, Christmas crafts are not entirely a thing of the past. With wreath-making classes on the up, and handmade gifts greatly cherished and appreciated, Christmas can be a brilliant time for us creative folk to put our pencils/paint brushes/potter’s wheels/crochet hooks to good use. And contrary to the stereotype, autistic people can be incredibly creative.
Whilst there are indeed autistic people for whom imagination is not their strong suit, many of us excel in a specific creative craft, hyperfocusing on said craft for hours on end until we are all but experts. This means that, not only can we hand out unique handmade gifts to our loved ones, but they can often be of a high enough quality to rival- or even surpass- something which we could have bought in a shop. There is also the added benefit of deriving great enjoyment and satisfaction from engaging in our chosen craft, which is especially helpful at a hectic time of year like Christmas. At its best, making things can actually take significant steps to reverse the effects of burnout.
25. Autism and Christmas Trees
Christmas trees are a traditional festive staple, brought over from Germany in the 19th Century. Every household has opinions about when to put them up, whether to go real or artificial, what colour lights to use; and us autistic people certainly hold fast to those opinions. The Christmas tree can be one of those traditions which are incredibly important to us, and one askew ornament or misplaced bauble can make us surprisingly distressed.
In addition to this, Christmas trees are hugely sensory objects. As with fairy lights, this can have a vastly different effect from person to person, depending on whether we are visual sensory seekers or avoiders. They can be an assault on the senses, or they can be a source of intense joy; or perhaps, neither of the above.
Autism and Christmas – Summary
Autistic people are every bit as unique and varied as neurotypical people; and like neurotypical people, we all have a different relationship with the festive season. This Christmas, try to spread goodwill to all mankind by being patient and understanding, and remembering that it’s our quirks and idiosyncrasies which make us human. Merry Christmas, and a happy New Year!