Christmas can be a magical time of year. A chance to relax and spend time with family. But for some, this time of year is instead stressful, frustrating and overwhelming. We hear from Disability Horizons David Preyde, who has Asperger’s Syndrome, about the pitfalls of spending Christmas with friends and family.
My name’s David and I have Asperger’s Syndrome. Now, people with Asperger’s are wildly different from each other, but for me, and many others, the key symptoms are:
- I love lists
- I have difficulty with changes to my routine
- I am extremely introverted
- I have difficulty with interpersonal interations
- I have multiple sensory sensitivities.
As you can imagine, these symptoms make Christmas and New Year rather tricky. It is already an intense and emotionally fraught time of year, even for the most neurologically typical, so for someone like me, it’s overwhelming.
This became even more evident last year when I decided to spend two weeks over Christmas and New Year with my partner’s family. It wasn’t easy, to say the least.
Difficulty with changes in routine
I lead a simple life. I get myself up in the morning and help my partner Hannah get up and ready (she’s in a wheelchair, so she requires assistance). I spend my mornings writing, my afternoons running errands, and my evenings watching TV.
So when I go to visit Hannah’s family, all of that routine gets shot to hell. I need reassurance and to have a clear idea of what’s coming up, so on the train ride to her family’s place, I asked her to debrief me for the thousandth time on what was going to happen.
“My sister and her kids are going to be staying over the whole time we’re there. On Christmas Eve we’ll all go to mass, which will be followed by a light dinner and present opening. On Christmas Day we’ll have my parents’ friends over, and the next day we’ll have my mom’s family over.”
Although I knew the plan, I had already anticipated all sorts of problems. However, I found the change in routine surprisingly easy to deal with. Every day Hannah and I got up, I helped her get ready, we went down to the basement, sat in front of a roaring fire, and watched terrible children’s movies with her nephew and niece. This was how the first week went – it became my new routine.
Of course, just having routine didn’t make things plain sailing. Hannah’s parents are warm, friendly, and accommodating, and I don’t do well with that. When I’m staying at someone’s house, the more they do for me, the worse I feel. That’s because I’m extremely introverted, and every social interaction leaves me feeling drained. When I’m a guest, I am already stressed because of the change in routine, so having to be friendly on top of that exacerbates the situation.
Hannah, unlike her family, is also an introvert. While we were staying at her parents’ house last Christmas, I asked her how she handled her temperamental differences.
“I mostly just listen, and try to figure out why my different family members behave the way they do,” she said. Which is how, I suppose, she became a psychologist. She may not fit in with her family, but understanding and accepting them is a pretty great consolation prize.
Difficulty with interpersonal interactions
The days of our fireside routine ended abruptly on Christmas Eve as the rest of Hannah’s immediate family descended on the house: her brother, sister-in-law, and their three small kids, as well as her sister’s partner.
I was thrown into the middle of noise and fuss and unfamiliar traditions. The next day was worse. Hordes of friendly strangers arrived at the house, with backslapping and handshaking, loud voices and shrilled laughter. I must’ve had the same conversation a thousand times.
The next day Hannah’s mother’s family visited too, and it was the same thing. I retreated on several occasions to Hannah’s bedroom. Of course, it wasn’t just the social interactions that were making me uncomfortable and tiring me out.
Multiple sensory sensitivities
We all have different senses that help us perceive and navigate the world: touch, sight, smell, hearing, and taste. But for me, it’s like someone has got their hands on the dial controlling my senses, cranked it up to the maximum setting and then snapped the knob off.
It goes without saying that I am not fun at parties.
So there I was, stuck in a house in the middle of a snowy wasteland, surrounded by dozens of jubilant, merry souls. All I wanted to do was run screaming into the night and take my chances with the cold.
Unfortunately, this was not an option. Instead, I smiled so tightly it felt as if my face would snap, and escaped as often as I could to the safety of Hannah’s bedroom. I felt the pressure in my head gradually increase.
The day after Boxing Day, I thought I was home free. There would be no more parties and no more guests, just Hannah’s immediate family.
But, it all came to a head when we had one last family meal before her siblings and their kids went back to their respective homes. Unfortunately, with thirteen of us, and with the dining room table only having room for eight people at most, it was overwhelming to say the least.
“We’ll just squeeze in really tight!” said Hannah’s mother. My eye involuntarily twitched.
I tried. Honestly, I did. I’d been trying for weeks at this point. But everyone has a breaking point. Hannah’s brother-in-law Mark tried sitting next to me, I bolted from the table, and announced that I would be eating in the living room. Hannah came with me. Mark approached me from behind and put his hands on my shoulders.
Hot tip: never, never, never do that to an Aspie.
“Don’t touch me!” I snapped, spinning around, giving him an evil stare.
“Are you serious?” he said.
I kept staring at him. He retreated to the dining room.
When you have a disability, it’s easy to feel like you’re the one who’s wrong. We go through our lives feeling like we’re being unreasonable. So, of course, I thought I was wrong for yelling at Mark. I thought I’d been oversensitive.
Later that night, Hannah told me that a few years ago Mark had done the same thing to her and she’d yelled at him, too. “He’s a nice guy, but he has bad boundaries sometimes,” she said.
I’m not used to having my crazy autistic feelings validated, and this was perhaps the best Christmas gift of all.
By David Preyde