Asperger’s and Christmas Stress

Let’s face it, the holidays are stressful for everyone. Throw in the social anxiety and sensory issues associated with Asperger’s Syndrome and Christmas can be a living hell – but only if you believe it has to be!

What? As adults, we face a great deal of Christmas expectations, from decorations and office parties to the right holiday clothes and dinnerware, and, of course, the perfect gifts for friends and family (one day that Lexus with the big red bow will be in my garage! Riiiiiiiight).

But those expectations are learned. We are conditioned to behave that way; we fall into a pattern of stress. If we tune into our real selves, listen to what we need and ignore the messages yammering at us about how we are supposed to be, we’ll all be better off.

Let me tell you an improbable story about Christmas in America…

Seventeen years ago, my son was the youngest in the family. We had entered a phase where my generation had just become adults and I was the first to bring a child into the family circle. Nearing the age of three, he was becoming aware of Christmas – the trees, the lights, the music, the presents, the chaos.

Christmas morning arrived and we filled the living room: six loud, large grown-ups and one small child, talking and laughing and tearing open boxes. Although we visited my parent’s house frequently, it was still unusual to be there that early in the day. Having a brightly decorated tree in the middle of the small living room was also strange, as was packing the room with so many adults. Still, he seemed fine, and he sat down in front of his allotted pile of brightly wrapped gifts.

With a little urging he opened his first gift. I don’t remember exactly what it was, but he moved on to the second gift, and a third. Plenty left to go in his pile. With great anticipation, everyone watched him open that third gift – it was the year of the Tickle Me Elmo, and Grandma just happened to pick one up at the mall because she thought it was cute. A week or so later sales went through the roof and the toy became impossible to find.

He opens the Tickle Me Elmo, we snip it free of the bindings holding it in the box, everyone admires the coveted must-have toy of the season, and then the adults tucked into their gifts as the laughter and conversation continued. Gotta get everything unwrapped and move on, right?

After a while, we realized someone hadn’t finished opening his pile of gifts. In fact, he wasn’t even in the room anymore! My brilliant little boy, overwhelmed with sound and light, feeling no driving desire to open every gift in sight, quietly took his Tickle Me Elmo and removed himself from the situation entirely, relocating to a quiet, safe room where his regular toys were kept. When the adults approached him, he tried to get away, clutching Elmo and protecting himself from the chaos.

He paid attention to his needs. He didn’t let the pressure of participation or the drive of greed push him into doing anything he didn’t want to do. He was charmed by his new toy and decided it was time to relocate, for his own benefit.

This holiday season, listen to your own needs. Most people need quiet time to appreciate the beauty of the season. Go for a walk and admire the lights in your neighborhood. Make a cup of tea and sit by the fireplace. Or find a quiet corner in a safe place and enjoy something new. Follow the wisdom of a three year old, and the happiest of holidays to you!

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