“They want me to do what?!” Handling unrealistic expectations for the holidays.

Christmas party painting

The Christmas Party. about 1850. Attributed to: Robert David Wilkie, American, 1827–1903. 

The holidays can be incredibly stressful for autistic / Aspie folks.

Lights, busy-ness, action!

Good grief.

Many of us just want to crawl under the covers and hibernate… or curl up behind closed doors with a good book in a comfy chair with a warm blanket wrapped around us and a nice cup of tea, coffee, or cocoa… and re-emerge after the holidays are over. Of course, there are autistic / Aspie folks who really thrive on all the excitement — the hyposensitive, sensory-seeking folks on that part of the autism spectrum can find this time of year wonderfully invigorating. But there are an awful lot of us who just cringe at the very thought of HOLIDAYS! – and we cringe, all year ’round.

Between the family demands, the changes in schedule, the dietary challenges, the increased social demands at work and in your community, as well as the ever-present additional logistical demands of figuring out who wants what for a holiday gift, where you’ll buy it, where you’ll find the time to shop, how you’ll afford it, and then how and when you’ll wrap it and get it to them… it can be completely overwhelming for so many of us.

Small wonder, we just want to crawl into bed and re-emerge when it’s all done and over with.

But we don’t always have that option. If you still have to get up and go to work every day, and you need to navigate the proverbial stormy seas of being social for the holidays, you need to chart a careful course through the final weeks of the year.

One of the biggest issues for many of us autistic folks, is the completely, totally, wholly unrealistic expectations of others. Neurotypical/non-autistic folks don’t seem to think anything of plunging into the borderline chaos of the “holiday spirit”, and they don’t seem to understand that it’s not all sweetness and light for us, this time of year.

They think nothing of scheduling long lunches in the middle of a workday (which totally throws off your daily routine). They think nothing of decorating with bright, flashing lights that distract night-time drivers and overwhelm sensitive eyesight. They think nothing of blaring Christmas music in stores packed with harried shoppers and cranking up the extra lights.  They think nothing of organizing parties at their homes, with a gathering of friends and acquaintances (who may be complete strangers to you)… and never once mentioning the unspoken rules of holiday social etiquette you’ll need to follow.

It all seems so natural to them – and they expect us to play along without missing a step… or even noticing that Everything Is Very Different From Normal.

So, how do we handle unrealistic expectations?

  1. Be pro-active with your time.
    • Set your daily/weekly schedule ahead of time, with your days clearly blocked off with specific activities. It’s a form of good self-defense, to clearly mark the times you’ll be doing things like eating lunch, shopping, or performing duties for work. That way, if someone schedules an impromptu holiday lunch that you’re just not feeling “up to”,  you can reasonably (and truthfully) say that you’ve got another commitment.
  2. Protect your time and your energy at parties and gatherings. Many holiday gatherings can be chock-full of social overwhelm, which goes long into the night. People are drinking and eating – and drinking some more – and they can get caught up in the excitement of socializing. Being social can be an energy-drain, to begin with, but if there’s no clear end-time in sight, that just adds to the stress.
    • You can arrive a little later than the official start time of the party, to minimize your exposure.
    • You can also tell the host(s) up front that you need to leave at a certain time.
    • Or you can ask someone to call you at a certain time, to give you a reason to leave.
    • If you’re feeling “stuck” — and you’re starting to feel panicked, or a meltdown feels like it’s building — step away from the gathering and let your system calm down. Find a quiet, enclosed space (like a bathroom stall or a room with a door you can close), and let your system chill out.
  3. Be clear about your dietary restrictions. A lot of us on the autism spectrum cannot eat or drink certain things. They either don’t agree with us, or they make us sick. Unfortunately, holiday gatherings often include plenty of “fun foods” that are practically poison to us. I, for example, cannot drink alcohol – at all – which can make me seem like a pretty boring party-goer. I also can’t have chocolate, processed sugar, gluten, wheat-based foods, or more than a sip of caffeine. So much for Christmas cookies.
    • If you’re going to a party, let your host know that you don’t drink or eat certain things, so they can make other provisions. Many hosts really appreciate being told what you cannot eat — and now that so many kids are allergic to nuts, the public bias against food allergies (“Oh, come on – just try a bite!”) seems to have softened.
    • If you’re at a restaurant / bar / pub, order a non-alcoholic drink that looks like a mixed drink. “Near beer” is not 100% alcohol-free, so that’s a danger for folks who are in recovery. A club soda with cranberry juice and a piece of lime looks like a Cape Codder, so you can fit in as someone who seems to be drinking — and avoid being pressured to have a “real drink”. You can also tell the bartender that you can’t drink any alcohol, and they can help look out for you.
    • If you’re attending a pot-luck gathering, bring a dish that you can eat, and eat your own food. Be very, very careful about the foods that others have brought. You don’t want to accidentally eat something that will make you sick — and add even more discomfort to an already challenging time.
  4. Be clear about your boundaries and promote them as positive alternatives. People can put a lot of pressure on us to participate in their idea of “fun” — which is anything but fun for us. This can range from family members expecting you to go shopping with them, to workmates expecting you to decorate your cube with bright flashing lights.
    • Be pro-active. Tell people what you’re going to do, instead of just going along with what they want. If your family wants you to shop with them, tell them when you want to go (early in the morning on a weekend, while you’re still fresh, or late in the evening after the crowds are gone), and invite them to come with you.
    • Come up with alternatives to what others are suggesting. Don’t want to hang lights in your cube? Get some colored decorations and hang them – just to show some “team spirit”.
    • Going back to points #1 and #2, schedule your holiday time and then guard your time and energy from people who think you have unlimited resources. If you can’t stand the idea of going out to an extended lunch with your workmates (because it disrupts your productive daily flow), suggest going out after work, after you’ve got your work done for the day… and you can easily excuse yourself because you have to get home — or you have to go shopping.
  5. Don’t worry too much about hurting people’s feelings. This is especially difficult for those of us who are ultra-sensitive to the feelings of others. It can feel excruciating to let people down or disappoint them. Many of us (me included) have a great talent for making things even more painful by perseverating on our social “failures” and telling ourselves that we’re terrible people who will never be good for anything. That’s not at all true, but it sure feels that way, at times.
    • First off, most people are not paying any attention to you or me or anyone other than themselves. Most NT people are so caught up in their own lives, that they barely notice the needs and feelings of others.
    • Secondly, even if they are a little upset, they’ll get over it. Find a way to apologize, if necessary, but remember, there are many, many reasons for people to get upset each day — if they did get mad at you, it’ll probably pass, because something else will upset them even more in the meantime.
    • Thirdly, there’s so much going on in the holidays, any social “infraction” you incur, will likely blur into the background of all the other excitement going on. See the point above – no matter how “badly” you behaved or made a mess of things, someone or something else will come along to make your “crime” look minor in comparison.
    • Last but not least, if you act like nothing awkward ever happened, and you carry on as though everything is wonderful between you and others, those offended others may forget all about it. NT people want to be socially successful, so if you offer them the chance to be on good terms with you again — regardless of what happened before — in my experience, they’ll jump at that chance.

For sure, the holidays can be a real social obstacle course for autistic folks. We need to take steps and manage our own situations, just as we do any other time in the year. The holidays just make things more intense.

Non-autistic people often compound that with a host of unrealistic expectations of us, this time of year. They don’t understand our limitations, and unless they’ve experienced some sort of limitation or disability themselves or with a loved one, they may not have the first idea how to accommodate us. They seem to have absolutely NO idea what life is like for us, so how can they even be aware they need to accommodate us?

But by getting pro-active and protecting yourself, your time, and our energy, as well as not getting too wrapped up in what other people think… we can have healthier, happier holidays and make it through to the end of the year — and beyond — intact.

##ActuallyAutistic#Asperger's#Asperger's Syndrome#Aspie#autism#autism spectrum#Autism Spectrum Condition#autistic#coping strategies#holidays#Living Well Holiday Guide


  1. The Silent Wave - December 23, 2016 @ 12:52 am

    Yes!! Cheering as I read this. All my life I’ve been treated as though I’m lazy, over sensitive, picky, stubborn, etc. So relieved to finally be vindicated after all these years! Better late than never, right? ?❤️❤️

    • admin - December 23, 2016 @ 8:20 am

      Absolutely! It’s never too late to realize you’re completely within your rights, to feel and experience what you do 🙂

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