This month, December, always comes with a mixture of anticipation and dread. It seems that for everything I enjoy about it there’s something else that taxes my endurance.
Ooh, look at the pretty!
I might not decorate my own home but I do love to see all the pretty lights and colours against the dull grey of December weather. Warm golden glow of lights, sumptuous reds entwined with deep, lustrous greens and contrasting with pearlescent white: the colours of seasonal holly, mistletoe and fir.
It’s a traditional palette, evoking fire, blood and life. The contrast with nature’s monochrome is stark: dark, spindly trees against the damp grey of overcast skies dividing long, cold nights.
The reason I don’t decorate at home is that it’s my refuge, my calm place. Decorating, putting up a tree and lights, would change it too much and I need it to remain the same familiar space I’m used to all year round. I can look out of my windows and admire the lights in the trees around the pub and community centre, but I can also close my blinds and insulate myself from the world outside.
Goodwill to all…
Even an old cynic like me gets a buzz from seeing people happy and smiling, and in times like these when the world seems to be going to hell in a handbasket I think it’s even more important to seek out and share happiness.
I know that a lot of people find this time of year stressful. The pressure to perform socially, to take part in seasonal rituals such as exchanging cards and gifts. To feel the increasing pressure of time as the big day approaches relentlessly.
I see so much stress around me when I’m out and about that it takes a conscious effort to distance myself and remain calm. I do what I can to minimise the pressure on myself by avoiding setting deadlines and not making firm commitments to be places at a particular time.
It makes a big difference to my stress levels when it doesn’t matter how long it takes me to travel somewhere, or how quickly I get something finished. With that mindset I don’t become impatient if I have to wait in line at the checkout or get stuck in traffic: I’ll get there in the end.
Hell is other people
One thing I loathe about this time of year is how much busier the shops get. I try my best to keep to my usual routine, but it’s hard to cope with seasonal crowds clogging the aisles of the stores and the town centres. Trying to find a parking space can be an ordeal to tax the bravest soul. I’m lucky: I have a store within easy walking distance so I need only deal with the ravening hordes inside.
Another trial of the holiday season is being pressured to spend time with other people. I’ve been through office parties, awkwardly standing around on the edges of conversations between people whose lives outside work I know nothing about. It was easier when I used to drink: that was how I coped with such situations.
And then there were visits to seldom-seen relatives and in-laws. Sometimes even spending the day there, away from the comfort of familiar surroundings and with little scope for avoidance. It helps to have an escape plan, whether that involves going for a walk, sitting in a car or quiet room away from the noise and people. Headphones and ear defenders can be your friends too: as long as you have some way to rest your senses.
Many people seem to thrive on physical contact: they paw at you, grab hold of you, catch you in uninvited embraces and crowd your personal space without consent. I love a good hug with somebody I like when it’s something we both want to do. It’s comforting, reassuring.
This is a matter of consent and respecting boundaries, something applicable to all areas of life. Telling an unwilling child, “Give Auntie Edna a hug. Go on, it’ll make her happy” will upset the child, even if they don’t show it as I never used to. Instead it built up resentment and discomfort that would often spill out later in a meltdown.
One thing I rarely enjoy is kissing: I find it horribly awkward and almost never pleasurable. The exception is a kiss on my cheek from somebody I am fond of, a dear friend. As a child it was torture to have kisses forced on me by presumably well-meaning relatives.
Discomfort and stress make me far less receptive to any form of physical contact, and even proximity: as my tension rises the perimeter of my personal space expands. When I’m in the middle of an anxiety attack simply having somebody in sight or earshot can be too much.
It’s another of my personal bugbears: intrusive scents. I held my breath and ran through the duty-free area of London Gatwick airport because I found the perfumes in the air intensely uncomfortable, the airborne chemicals burning my eyes, sinuses and throat.
I’ve been subjected to it on trains too and I wonder how people think it is acceptable to inflict such a sensory assault on those around them. Would they also stand there shining a flashlight into people’s eyes, screaming in their ears, or stabbing them with needles? Because it’s just as bad.
Now, I’m not some curmudgeon intent on spoiling people’s enjoyment of the festive season. I enjoy participating but it has to be on my own terms and within limits of my own choosing.
That’s the key to success: having a balance to avoid too much exposure to people, sensory input or other stresses. Self care becomes more important: having down time to maintain sufficient reserves of energy and having a refuge you can escape to if the need arises. Work out boundaries and limits–and stick to them.
However you celebrate, being autistic at Christmas comes with its own seasonal challenges that need a bit of forethought to handle effectively and sensitively. A bit of planning and preparation can help a lot and make it a more enjoyable time for everyone.