Christmas is only a few days away, so for my final blog of 2023 I wanted to reflect on my relationship with the festive season, especially in the context of life as an (originally undiagnosed) autistic person. Many autistics thrive at this time of year, but for others it can be an endurance test.
Andy Williams famously crooned that this is ‘The Most Wonderful Time of the Year’ but for a long time I absolutely hated Christmas. As a kid, I resented the fact that my Dad worked really long hours throughout December, then fell asleep on the couch as soon as Christmas Dinner was over. Then I started working in retail… by the time I was in my mid-twenties, I was a manager and it was my turn to conk out in front of the telly on the big day!
Then there’s the food. Like many neurospicy people, I have a pretty complicated relationship with food and my diet is perhaps not as varied as most. All the normal rules go out of the window during December which can be incredibly difficult to cope with if your brain is wired in a non-standard way. Luckily for me, a lot of my favourite foods (things like nuts, for example) become more popular at Christmas.
The trickiest thing for me to navigate at this time of year is always the complete lack of routine. There’s time off work, which is obviously a good thing, but limited / non-existent public transport, which limits what you can do with that time. You may find yourself visiting family members you haven’t seen for months, which can be challenging both conversationally and because it can take you to unfamiliar environments. How to cope with that?
For a long time, alcohol was an essential tool for coping with the demands of Christmas Day. It would start with several glasses of Buck’s Fizz over breakfast, maybe a couple of beers during the cooking, then the wine would be opened in time to be served with the main meal, then keep flowing until bedtime. I used to find that drinking helped me turn down the volume of my internal monologue whilst also providing a nice sensory ‘hit’.
I don’t hate Christmas any more. Becoming a parent had a lot to do with that! The joy I get from the presents emerging from under the tree and the kids’ excitement as they open them is intense. Another major factor is that our family has certain traditions, some of which I’ve adapted from what happened at home when I was a kid. Others are based on what my wife’s family used to do as she grew up and others are modern. These traditions help me to stay regulated, because they occur at different points during the day and form a temporary routine. An example of a new tradition which is especially important to me is that in the evening of 25th December, once the children have gone to bed, I’ll sink into an armchair and open a book that I’ve been given. There will be a snack on hand and, until a couple of years ago, there would have been a freshly-opened bottle of Rioja. This year, I will have a glass or two of red wine while I read, but it will be non-alcoholic.
Although I always drank for pleasure, rather than to deliberately get drunk, since getting my diagnosis I’ve learned that I was unconsciously using booze to subdue social anxiety and attempt to appear ‘normal’ (by which I mean ‘like everyone else in the room’). Now I know myself a lot better and have been able to share my diagnosis with family and friends, it is much easier for me to advocate for myself and ask for what I need, whether that is a breath of fresh air away from the hubbub or for the gravy to be kept off my Christmas Dinner. This year, we’re at home for Christmas, which makes life much easier; I’ll be in an environment I know and doing a lot of the cooking, meaning that I’ll be spending quite a bit of time on my own in the kitchen. My wife’s parents are coming, which will be fantastic and things won’t be too busy.
I’m actually looking forward to it, which isn’t something I might have said a few years ago! Yes, there will be a lot of noise, flashing lights and other things that, for 364 days a year I find really hard to cope with. But those things will bring enormous joy to my children, which I can share in and I’ll be supported through the day by my beloved and her parents. Then, once the kids have gone to bed, I can read my Christmas Night Book knowing that we’ve spent the day together as a family. That’s a fantastic gift in itself.
I’m lucky, in that I’m comfortable in my neurotype and I have a supportive family around me. If we were hosting twenty-odd people I might be feeling very different about the day so, if someone in your life finds Christmas a bit overwhelming, try to help them find a way to enjoy the day in a way that feels right for them.
Merry Christmas to all who celebrate. Hopefully, I’ll have a new post ready on 4th January.