Asperger’s and Christmas

bauble balls hang on christmas tree

Prior to my ASD diagnosis, Christmas could be quite a stressful time because of my Asperger’s. Although five-year-old me expressed a love for Christmas lights, I was always quite agitated and tearful around Christmastime. In my earlier post, I talked about my struggles with birthdays, and for a while, Christmas caused similar problems. In addition to the sheer volume of additional stimulation that Christmas brings, due to my lack of innate social skills, I often didn’t know how to express my feelings about Christmas, which could make it a frustrating experience for me.

One notable instance of my difficulty in communicating was when my grandpa took me on a trip to a garden centre which was holding a light display. It was an hour-long journey, and when we got there it was magical. There were little grotto scenes lit up throughout the store. We walked around and I looked at everything without saying much. At the end of the evening, my grandpa asked me if I had enjoyed it. That was when five-year-old me turned around and said, much to his surprise and dismay: ‘I’ve already seen Christmas lights.’  

Predictably offended, my grandpa reported this lack of gratitude to my mum when we got home. My mum was mortified; she couldn’t understand it, because I’d always expressed a liking towards Christmas lights, and both her and my grandpa had thought I would have enjoyed it. And in reality – I had! That evening, back at home, all I did was talk about the lights I had seen, for hours. Why, then, had I acted so ungratefully? It wasn’t due to a lack of appreciation – rather, it was because I had needed time at home to process all the stimulation, before I was able to articulate my feelings on it. I hadn’t meant to be rude, I just hadn’t known how to express my appreciation in a socially appropriate way.

In 2012, I developed a facial tic (a twitch like a wink in my left eye) and was diagnosed with chronic motor tic syndrome and Asperger’s. This diagnosis was useful. Parents did loads of research about how things affect me when things are changing and how even positive stimuli can be painful. So that year, we did Christmas differently. Decorations were kept to a minimum – we didn’t put Christmas cards up, we just had a Christmas tree in the corner with a few fairy lights. These decorations went up just a couple days before Christmas eve, and on Boxing Day everything was taken down again. And it was the best Christmas ever. 

Doing Christmas this way limited the stimulation and disruption to my routines. Subsequently, I was less overstimulated, and much calmer and happier. My parents also talked to me about how school was different towards the end of the term before Christmas – what with the class doing nativity productions, and teachers putting on Christmas films. Normally this disruption to the normal routine caused me a lot of stress and I would be having meltdowns frequently, in addition to going mute for periods up to 30 minutes. Previously, my parents had interpreted this behaviour as due to excessive excitement, but now they recognised it was actually severe anxiety due to the less structured nature of lessons. Now they were able to talk to me about it, and prepare me beforehand, explaining that school might be a bit different in the last week, which helped reassure me.

The message here, like my post about birthdays, is that all of us, including people on the spectrum, should be mindful of the very human tendency to project our own ideas about what excitement and appreciation look like onto others. It sounds simple on paper, but it’s easy to assume that just because you express your feelings one way, that your way is the right way, or the only way, and expect everybody else to show their feelings in a similar way. It’s especially easy to assume that when you’re part of a neurotypical majority. But it’s important that we recognise the different ways that people can express themselves. The case of Christmas illustrates that it is mutually beneficial to provide accommodations; in this case, for the price of fewer decorations, the Christmas holidays were a lot happier for not just me but for my whole family, who no longer had to manage my frequent meltdowns. 

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