By Kris McElroy
The holiday season is one of my favorite times of the year while also being one of the most difficult for me. I love the decorations, music, and lights of the holiday season, but I struggle with sensory overload, crowds, and the social expectations and requirements of holiday gatherings.
Over the years, the season brings about many different emotions ranging anywhere from happiness and excitement to stress, grief, loneliness, and everything in-between. This year, the Covid-19 pandemic has added extra emotions and elements to navigate, causing the news of the holidays being different due to the pandemic to be a hot topic of conversation due to surges in cases and safety.
For me, I feel stuck in the past 10 months of constant changes in routine, regular sensory overload, everyday communication challenges, fatigue, and unpredictability mixed with a heightened state of, well, everything.
Being in the middle of the holiday season has just intensified all of that and I have a freeze response when I am trying to figure out what things are going to look like and how to prepare as an autistic adult for the holidays in the middle of this pandemic.
In the past, I started planning for the holidays in mid-October. I had times, locations, number of people, and menus to plan what my needs were and how to meet them. But this year is different.
That’s a fact due to loss and the pandemic. Our plans have shifted, like many people’s plans. I still made a list of what is most important to me, what I want to participate in, and checking in with family and friends to see what their tentative plans are that they would like me to attend. But I don’t have access to the traditions and routines I previously relied on, and I’m simultaneously trying to figure out what tools I will need to help navigate what will be a very different holiday season this year.
So, my partner and I continue to have many conversations. Everything from making new traditions, to changing activities, to what our needs are individually and as an inter-abled couple.
For myself, I decided I needed to approach the holidays this year as separate from all the rest. It made it easier for me to process the changes and transition while also helping me figure out how I am able to interact with the season. So, I plan to shop online or do curbside pick-up during the weekday early or late store hours.
This year, I am doing sensory-friendly holiday activities in my own home, while scheduling zoom holiday calls with no more than one household at a time, spread across multiple days and during the time when I am at my best. I’ve also put in some support group meeting on my calendar as well because I struggle more with anxiety and depression as I am reminded of the sudden loss of family members and friends during past Novembers and Decembers.
There is still a lot of unknown, and no plans are concrete yet. My anxiety is still very high, and I am still working on coming to terms with how different this holiday season will be. But I am also working on being kind and gentle with myself.
That’s why I discovered these tips to help me navigate the holiday season this year as an autistic adult, and I hope you might benefit from them, too.
1. Take it one moment at a time.
2. Ever feeling I am having at this moment is valid.
3. It’s okay to pause, unplug, and take a break.
4. I choose how to navigate difficult conversations in ways that are best for me.
5. When being kind and gentle to yourself is difficult, remember you are worth it. All acts of self-care, no matter how small, are a way to show yourself kindness and gentleness.
6. Have a conversation(s). Communicate about how holidays will be different and plan ahead for what they will look like this year.
7. Decide on how to best incorporate the things that are most important to you.
8. If having virtual/in-person events or gatherings to celebrate, think about your needs and how to best participate. For example, if larger virtual gatherings with family and/or friends are overloading, an option to consider might be breaking the virtual gatherings into smaller amounts and spreading them out across the week.
9. Make space for different emotions, expressions, sensory breaks and alone time.
10. Take time to do things you enjoy and engage in self-care.
11. My boundaries are valid, period. Set your boundaries and uphold them.
12. Remember, it’s OK to struggle.
13. Keep it simple.
14. My life, wellbeing, and safety are not dispensable.
15. Seek support if needed (i.e., support groups, professional counselor, family etc.)
16. My best is good enough. Who I am is enough.
17. Make sure your strategies and tools are available to you and easily accessible when you need them.
Kris McElroy is a freelance writer, artist, and advocate. He is passionate about social justice issues and exploring race, disabilities, gender identity & sexuality, mental health, identity, trauma, and intersectionality. Born and raised in Maryland, Kris is an autistic biracial black transgender man with multiple disabilities who enjoys spending time with his wife and family. He received his Bachelor of Science in Psychology from the University of Maryland and a Master of Science in Multidisciplinary Human Services from Capella University.