December 6, 2022

An Autistic person's guide to avoiding seasonal overwhelm

Tips on building a gentle routine for the holidays

Lydia Wilkins

Guest Writer from Mademoiselle Women - Documenting life on the Autistic Spectrum

An Autistic person's guide to avoiding seasonal overwhelm

Christmas is often dubbed the most wonderful time of year - and the build up seems to get longer and longer every year. Complete with twinkly lights aplenty on every street, delicious food to see the year out, family gathered all around, and the prospect of presents being given as we come to the end of another year. It can however be sometimes overwhelming when you are on the Autistic spectrum. With all that new extra sensory input, as well as changes in almost virtually everything routine, what can we do about that? As it turns out, there are some basic things we can put in place.

If you are reading this, you probably know that routines are very important to Autistic people and others who fall under the title of Neurodivergent - and the reason for this varies from individual to individual (after all, every single human being is different!). However, there are some strategies that you can put in place over the Christmas period to help with keeping and maintaining routines.

Make time visual - and use it as a visual prompt

Some Neurodivergent people have talked about being ‘time blind’ - in effect, how time seems a not very tangible concept - however timing can sometimes be an issue, such as when it comes to executive functioning.

Making time visual - such as literally having clocks dotted around, using timers on your phone, having liquid timers - could help you keep to a routine, in that you are giving a task a designated time to start and end. Timers could also help potentially with task anxiety - such as if you have to cook, or if a child is worried about there potentially being no end of an activity in sight (more on that in a minute).

Set out very clearly what is expected in terms of the routine

When I was a webinar tutor - which meant teaching Autistic people, and very often parents (some who also had a relatively new diagnosis) - there would often be a lot of questions around routines, and individuals becoming ‘agitated’ around being expected to just relax, and ‘go with the flow’ of events.

Now. This is not on them - it’s about making time more visible as well as tangible. If you have a child who is perhaps struggling in terms of routines, set out very clearly what is expected in terms of the routine. Try to give a start and end time if possible, which may also need to be subject to potential changes (i.e if a car was to break down.) Be very clear and upfront with them; if things have to change, try to gently tell them ahead of time without dropping this on them too harshly.

Arguably if you are hosting guests, this would also have a greater and positive impact for everyone else too - having a start and end time would mean people have to leave by a specific time. This could also be handy in preventing sensory overload.

Also make your routine visual - have a plan, and try to stick to it

Autistic people collectively seem to love to plan - why wouldn’t you?! But this is such a useful skill - and should be utilised around the holidays, too.

Christmas time will very likely present a huge amount of change, as well as different plans as well. There may be a lot to contend with socially - such as if you have to go to a work Christmas party, if you need to go gift shopping, or any occasions or family traditions during this time.

So when it comes to December - and let’s take it as a whole month at a time - there is a whole lot to contend with. Have a month overview, so you can see the countdown to the big day. Incorporating countdowns can be useful, too, and not just through an advent calendar. Write down all of your events - and if you like, you could even colour code (blue for family, green for friends, red for work and/or deadlines, yellow for yourself, etc.). That way you can pace yourself so your energy levels won’t take too much of a hit. You can also build in ‘recovery time’ as a result, too. Keep this visible, to keep you on track.

Some Autistic people may find it beneficial to produce a very specific timeline or schedule. Make sure that your schedule also incorporates all of the elements of your day - i.e time to prepare, transition, tidy up, etc.

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Set aside self care and ‘Cool Off’ time - this is important to any routine

We often think of routines in terms of productivity - i.e to have a routine ostensibly means that limits are in place for us to be our most productive selves, as well as to achieve the most we possibly can.

While some individuals do use routines like this, it’s important to also incorporate time for self care and to cool off. After all, we are sensory beings in a very overwhelming world!

Incorporate technology to help

Some have posted online about how technology aids them in their day to day life; illustrator Megan Rhiannon, for example, has written about her Apple Watch and how that acts as a huge help. Consider incorporating technology into your routine, to aid things you might find a bit difficult.

And if you are looking for specific recommendations - there is an app for that, as there always is! Tiimo can help with all your related routine worries, and as it is a visual planner, it can help with visualising time, and also means that you can keep the your December schedule visible and always with you! Wishing you a great holiday season.

Lydia is an Autistic UK-based journalist. She is particularly passionate about disability and social justice issues. She is also the author of the Autism Friendly cook book which will be out next year. You can find her blog and newsletter here

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