December 7, 2016
Family Meals and Social Gatherings
Time spent with family has the potential to be one of the most emotionally draining aspects of the holidays. Even if your family is understanding and does everything they can to support you, the very fact that you experience changes in routine and must communicate in new situations and group settings makes things even more challenging.
For those of us whose families do not understand or accept our autism or when unhealthy dynamics such as alcoholism and fighting occur, family gatherings can trigger unhappy memories and emotions. They can result in very uncomfortable or even unhealthy situations as a result.
You may be expected to participate in activities or rituals that cause sensory overload such as opening packages, listening to music, exposure to flashing lights, scented candles, and noisy dinner conversations. These activities may disrupt your normal sleep cycle. You may also be pressured to consume food or beverages that are not good for you by people who do not understand your dietary needs and want you to participate fully in their holiday rituals.
I want my family to understand that I’m autistic and certain things really are hard for me to handle. Television noise and Christmas lights for example. But they just don’t get it. No matter how many times I explain that I can’t follow conversations if the television is on or there are flashing lights in the room the television and Christmas lights remain on. They just say I should concentrate more and “get over it”.
This is a time when your lifestyle choices may come into question and you may feel pressure to conform to family requests or wishes they have about how they want you to live your life.
Don’s Story: I’m 35 years old and I’ve never had a romantic relationship. Is that normal? I just am not interested. Perhaps maybe I should be. Everyone I know my age has at least been in a relationship and most people my age are married and some even have kids. Every year when I go to visit my family my mother asks “Donny, have you met a nice girl yet?”
There may also be expectations from your employer, church, or organizations that you are involved with to attend social holiday gatherings. These events can be especially anxiety provoking because people are expected to “mingle” often in unfamiliar settings and with unfamiliar people. It is during these events when high-level social and communication skills are especially necessary. Yet our social communication skills are often the most challenged with new people in new group environments.
Here are some tips to deal with the challenges of family and social gatherings:
- Set time limits for stressful activities ahead of time and inform people of those limits if doing so is helpful. For example, limit your time in the following situations:
- Events with noisy children and/or people you do not know well
- Events at unfamiliar locations
- Events that require you to play a specific role such as giving a toast or speech, greeting people, or performing readings or other spiritual duties.
- Events that require you to wear clothing that is uncomfortable
- Decline those events or gatherings that will simply be too stressful or have a negative impact on your health. For example:
- Events where your physical or mental health is compromised
- Events that are scheduled too closely together such as a happy hour for work and then a family meal directly afterwards.
- Activities where fighting or excessive drinking are likely to occur
- Activities where any illegal behaviors such as illegal drugs may take place
- Introduce your own autism friendly rituals, foods and customs. For example:
- instead of noisy wrapping paper, wrap gifts in eco-friendly reusable cloth bags. Cloth bags are easier, more cost effective and take less time than paper so they offer benefit to everyone.
- instead of playing music and talking the whole evening, participate in a designated period of silence as a family where people reflect on what they are grateful for and enjoys being in a quiet, peaceful state.
- When family members, employers and group organizers are willing and able, discuss helpful accommodations and ask for their support in implementing them.
- Find a quiet corner or space in the room with fewer people to sit back and watch.
- Knowing how to begin and enter conversations can be very challenging. Prepare a simple script in advance of two or three conversation starters based on the people who attend the event (see conversation starters worksheet)
- Schedule extra recovery/rest time for yourself after stressful events to get a nap or just decompress.
- When high stress activities are necessary, be sure to limit other activities as much as possible. Do not schedule more than one stressful activity in a day if possible.
- Give yourself as much as a week to recover after challenging activities that you feel are necessary to participate in such as dinner parties, religious or spiritual traditions and celebrations.
- If someone else has driven you to an event, have an exit plan in case they do not want to leave when you are ready or are unable to drive due to alcohol consumption. Be prepared to call a cab, friend or family member who is willing to come get you and arrange for this in advance.
Possible Conversation Starters
Conversation topics typically fall into one or more of the following categories:
Who? What? When? Where? Why? How?
Let this be a general guide to help you script out possible conversation topics in advance.
For Family, Colleagues and Other People you Already Know:
- “It’s been a long time (can state specific length of time) since we have seen each other. I’m looking forward to catching up”.
- “Last time I saw you, you were ____________ (list a job they had, a project they were working on, or an interest they shared with you)”.
- “Are you still interested in _______ (list an interest they previously shared with you)”.
- People generally like to be complimented. Offer a compliment if you like something they said, a dish they brought, their appearance (something they are wearing, carrying or their hairstyle).
- People who have children generally like to talk about them. If you notice a quality or trait that their child has, you can bring this up.
- “I see your daughter likes to play with _______”
- “I think __________ (can use their child’s first name if you know it) really looks like Uncle Charlie”.
- “What do you think about ________?” This is a good question to ask if you know what a person is interested in.
- “How is ___________ (list someone you both know) doing?”
For People You are Meeting the first Time:
- Offer a compliment based on something you know the person has done, a dish they brought, or their appearance.
- “How do you know ________?” a mutual friend or the party organizer
- “What do you for a living?”
- “Are you from this area?”
Topics that are Generally Good to Avoid during Holiday Gatherings:
- Divorce or breakup (unless the other person brings it up first).
- Losing a job (unless the other person brings it up first)
- Death of a person that they knew but you did not (unless the other person brings it up first).
- Religion (unless you know you have the same basic beliefs and it is not a work sponsored event).
- Politics (some people can get very upset or offended during political discussions).
- Sexual or racial jokes
- Changes in appearance that society considers to be “negative”. For example, if a person has lost hair, gained weight or looks older, it’s best not to mention these changes.
Conversation Starter for People I Know Worksheet
Name of Person Attending Upcoming Gathering
What I know about this Person: interests, career, family
My Script: Questions and Comments I can make when talking to this person
|Example: Aunt Jane||She is my favorite cousin’s (Karl’s) mom. She was a hairstylist years ago and married my uncle Bob. She likes dogs and talked with my mom about her new puppy the last time she was in town.||It is good to see you. I’ve been wondering what Karl is up to these days.
I remember you had a new puppy last year. How is he?
Conversation Starter for People I Don’t Know Worksheet
Theme of event:
Common interest for all attendees
My Script: Questions and Comments I can make when talking to this person
|Example:Holiday fundraiser supports the local Humane Society||Did you attend last year’s event? I think this one is (bigger, more organized, has better turnout)
How did you get involved with the Humane Society?
|Example: Meet first cousin for the first time at a family meal. Don’t know anything about her except that she is Uncle Mark’s daughter.||It’s nice to meet you. Did you ever get the chance to spend time on Grandpa John’s farm?|