Christmas, for me, is about showing the people I love how I feel about them. It’s a time when it’s okay to build routines, because we can call them traditions and that makes them indisputable.
One of the things I learnt when I found out I was autistic, is that when I get terribly run down, or migraines, or exhaustion, or pain, or all of the above, after too much social interaction, there is a reason for it.
I am overusing certain parts of my brain in order to communicate in non-autistic ways. I am watching my own performative-communication, whilst I watch yours, and I am analysing and responding as fast as my little brain can manage.
There’s a lot of social obligation that goes with the festive season, and this can mean burn out for autistic people. Alongside the social, there will be the sensory bombardment. I can find it difficult keeping up with conversations when music is playing, but ‘tis the season for constant songs.
Don’t get me wrong, I love singing. I love Christmas songs, and I don’t think my husband and I have managed one car journey together this December, without breaking into “Fairytale of New York” by the Pogues (he has a beautiful voice, I squeak on the high notes, but we love it).
I find it incredibly difficult to filter speech from song, and my mind would always rather focus on the music, so it becomes a battle to keep to the meaning of what is being said, instead of responding to lines in a song, “Why no, I don’t think snow is falling all around me. Children playing? Having fun, you say? Love and understanding sounds great. Merry Christmas, everyone.”
The Christmas lights can be a stimming paradise, but they are also overwhelming. More headaches, more strained eyes, more exhaustion.
We talk about empathy a lot, and empathy between brain-types can be particularly hard at this time of year. Some people seem to be ceaselessly energised by the frantic socialising. Others, like me, would rather go to one or two things – maybe – but on our own terms, and knowing we will get overloaded and maybe need to leave.
I don’t understand a lot of the things people do this time of year, but I don’t have to understand to accept that that is what some people like. Just because you don’t personally experience something doesn’t mean it isn’t real.
When I first got my diagnosis the priority was to build some boundaries. I needed to do this. I needed to work out what my limits are and how to manage recovery times. I needed to understand how I work with my newfound self-knowledge. I needed to be able to say no to things and for people to learn how I really work.
Years of suppressing who I am had left their toll. Years of pushing on and comparing myself to everyone else, years of being told my pain wasn’t real, years of thinking I was ill, when I was just exhausted, meant it was vital to take a step back and learn my natural patterns and rhythms.
Several years on and I do understand myself much better. I know when to plan for a rest, I know the consequences of pushing on through, I know my limits better than I ever have.
Which means that I can create constructive coping mechanisms, and work with my ways of doing things, instead of just berating myself for not being better or stronger or more likeable.
It’s not always perfect; sometimes I get things wrong, sometimes things change, sometimes other people aren’t clear and it makes life harder, but all in all, I am a much happier version of me than I have ever been before and that can only be a good thing.
This Christmas I’m going to work on my empathy more. Not everyone is good at showing empathy across the divide. The Double Empathy Problem is real (where we all find it much easier to empathise with those who think like us, than we do with those who don’t – so autistic people find it easy with other autistic people, non-autistic people find it easy with non-autistic people, but non-autistic people find it harder to empathise with autistic people, and vice versa).
But even within our groups we need to make leaps-of-empathy. We don’t all have the same issues, we don’t all have the same needs, we don’t all have the same loves, and we need to remember that. Our sensory issues can clash – one person’s loved movement, is another person’s visual overload – and we need to be empathetic to each other, and show compassion and compromise when around other people. That is how we demonstrate true empathy.
Here are my Christmas Offerings for this year:-
1. I will do my best to stay for as long as possible, but if I do need to leave, I will do it with the minimum of disruption, and I will let you know before hand that it might happen, if that’s possible. I won’t drag anyone else away if they are enjoying it, I will have a plan
2. I am not a hugger, but I know that some of the people in my family are, and that they feel rejected when I don’t hug them. Hugs can be painful if I’m feeling overloaded, but most of the time I just don’t like them. As long as I am free to choose, I will choose to give you hugs at Christmas
3. There are times when I’d like to cancel all social obligations and see you all next year but I shan’t. I will keep to the traditional social gatherings. I shall join in and have plenty of planned downtime afterwards. Just because it’s exhausting, doesn’t mean I should choose to avoid it. These connections are important, and you build on these connections by being present and a part of them. I will take a moment to recognise how lucky I am to have you all
My Christmas Wishes for this year:-
1. That if there is change I will be told as soon as possible so that I can be prepared for it
2. That people will understand that if I need to leave early, it’s nothing personal, it’s what I need to do
3. That people will tell me what is happening (and when) as much as possible. A lot of the problems around Christmas are down to change in routine and uncertainty. We’ll never take that away, but it’s great when people we love can show us compassion by making plans and keeping to them
The reason I can give these things is that the choice is mine. There’s a difference between giving my energy freely and having it taken from me. I want to do this. If someone told me that it’s what I should do, it would undermine the whole point of an exercise in empathy between us.
My parents have shown such compassion since my diagnosis. Have they always got it right? Of course not! We’re all human. Sometimes I am too blunt with them and they find that hard. Sometimes they forget to inform me of change and I find that hard.
We are learning each others’ languages after a lifetime of knowing each other – and that is a peculiar point to be at. We all make mistakes, but we are also all improving the system; it just takes a bit of mutual empathy.
Do I expect the whole world to make allowances for me all the time? No. Would I like it to compromise more? Absolutely. It’s not beyond us all to do it. We can do better.
This Christmas I will be more empathetic to those not like me. Even those who don’t deserve it – empathy doesn’t cost me anything.
I will always prefer to think and expect the best of people. Yes it leads to disappointment sometimes, but more often than not, it lets people in, and it gives people a chance to understand another way of seeing the world.
Happy Christmas if you go in for that sort of thing, hope you have a lovely December if you don’t.