Surviving Christmas with ADHD and Autism: Tips to Manage Festive Expectations
Navigating Christmas with ADHD and Autism can be a confusing, overwhelming and stressful time.
These neurological conditions are largely ‘invisible’ and misunderstood by many, so the challenges we face are often overlooked by society during times like Christmas.
It can be mentally and even physically painful, with the festive traditions and expectations causing more stress and anxiety than we already have.
Challenges at Christmas with ADHD and Autism can include:
- Being overstimulated by large crowds when Christmas shopping
- Loud festive music in shops affecting our sensory processing and anxiety levels
- The pressure of buying things for various people within time limits, and not wanting to get it wrong.
- Expectations of socialising within environments that raise anxiety.
- Dreading receiving gifts and preferring to avoid this where possible.
- Being out of our consistent routines due to festive events and plans.
Here’s some ideas for managing Christmas with ADHD and Autism, which come from both my own experience and researching online:
Relationships at Christmas with ADHD and Autism
Managing relationships with family, friends and partners are difficult at the best of times, but Christmas can make it even harder.
Many may have dysfunctional or emotionally distant families, which can be hard to navigate.
For blended families and co-parents, it can involve complex relationships to manage, especially when planning who will have the children each day at Christmas.
Make time for you and if you have one, your partner, so there’s things to look forward to amidst the stress!
Work out whether there’s any people you can be ‘too busy’ to see, if they’re likely to trigger you, and prepare your excuses.
For those people you must see who are difficult, plan ahead. Think about how you can manage some of the usual difficulties that crop up with them. Can you arm yourself with ways to distract or constructively them down if you feel able to?
If that sounds daunting, plan ways to get away from them when the triggers start to get pushed. You could excuse yourself with the toilet or needing to get a drink when your anxiety is starting to rise.
Another option is to prepare beforehand by asking someone you trust to notice when this person talks to you, so they can intervene before it gets too difficult for you.
Take Breaks and Set Boundaries
Take breaks where possible if spending long periods of time with others.
Walking a dog, cleaning up in the other room or getting a phone call can be great get-out excuses.
Set boundaries for yourself. If a family member is an addict, has severe mental health conditions or behaviours that trigger you, make a plan to leave before being triggered too much.
Perhaps you will leave before they get drunk, or once they have started to exhibit behaviours you struggle with. You can tell them in advance you will leave if certain behaviours begin, or you can simply make an excuse if this is easier.
For co-parenting issues, explore which extended family on both sides want to see the children, and get their availability in advance.
Find out everybody’s expectations:- who wants to see you and what’s their availability? Then create a group calendar, so everyone knows what’s going on.
Society has built expectations for everyone to be happy and sociable during Christmas.
Social media and films depict this time of year to involve surrounding yourself with friends and family, and having lots of parties.
This can create a pressure for those who find socialising difficult, or who have volatile relationships with family.
Being forced to see certain family members or attend events that are overstimulating can be highly triggering. This can lead to high levels of anxiety, catastrophising and lead to distressing emotional dysregulation.
Where Possible, Avoid and Say No
Consider not spending time with people who trigger you negatively, or find ways to spend less time with them.
For example, perhaps agree to a one-hour lunch rather than an all-day event.
Don’t be afraid to decline invitations to some social events.
You don’t need to offer a reason if this feels like it may trigger the other person.
Your wellbeing is more important than societal expectations.
Whether it’s with family, friends or work colleagues, parties can bring a sense of fear and urge for avoidance.
Family parties can be full of people you know well, and they may expect you to get into family gossip and politics, which can be tricky to navigate.
Office parties can involve hundreds of people and take place in a large, noisy and possibly badly lit room, full of triggers to encourage sensory overload.
Accessible Event Planning
If possible, ask if an accessible venue can be used which has less sensory triggers.
Somewhere with quiet spaces to go to when it gets too much, with clear instructions of how to get to the venue and where the exit is to use when overwhelmed.
Picking the right outfit can be difficult with hyperfocus, impulse spending or even finding the oxymoron ‘smart casual’ confusing to the point you avoid the party altogether.
Ignore the dress code, or if you’re involved in planning the event, have zero dress code.
Wear what makes you feel comfortable, to reduce potential triggers you will be facing from being in that environment.
Your workplace might run a secret Santa which adds pressure to buy a gift for somebody you may not know well.
Add in a budget and time deadline, secret Santa can cause dysregulation in someone with ADHD,- I would know!
Opt-out of it if you can to remove the pressure, or suggest other options.
Donating to charity or using the money to go for lunch removes having to choose anything for anybody else or forgetting to.
The festive season can include various parties, dinners and events, which interrupts our usual daily routines.
Neurodivergent humans benefit from consistent routines (even if we don’t find them fun) so this season can throw us off balance a lot.
Christmas with ADHD and Autism involves routine changes which can be difficult to adjust to.
Social events can mentally overstimulate us which can lead to exhaustion.
Spread it Out
Spread activities far apart to allow some of each day or the week to include your usual routines.
For example, instead of spending one full day with family, see them for a couple of hours each day for three days.
This gives you time to recharge between each session and reduce overstimulation and burnout.
Have a schedule on your phone with dates, times, locations of the activities you need to go to.
Use alarm reminders to minimise being late or forgetting completely, by spreading them out in the lead-up to each event.
This can be tricky, especially for ADHD-ers who often impulse spend and struggle with saving money.
The pressure to buy presents can increase our impulsivity, combined with the desire to please others.
Avoid Last-Minute Shopping at Christmas with ADHD
Try to avoid last-minute shopping for gifts, as impulse control will be at its weakest by in this environment.
Set a specific amount for each person you are buying for, and have a list of possible items to get them.
Shopping online with a set list rather than going to shops can help to avoid spotting lots of other items and ‘deals’ that are spread around shops to entice our impulsive brains.
Giving and Receiving Gifts
Gifts are one of the main parts of this season, but can be difficult for those with neurodivergence.
Being given presents can be an unpleasant experience.
It’s expected that you will show gratitude whenever you receive a present, even if it’s one you don’t like.
It can be hard for us to hide our true emotions and thoughts, so many dread opening gifts in case they offend the giver.
Even if we like the gifts, some can struggle to show emotion, so may appear ungrateful or dissatisfied too.
On the other side, finding and buying gifts can be another pressure, especially if the person has traits that include Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria, people-pleasing and fear of failure that can be affected.
Change it Up
Suggest not exchanging gifts this year, and instead give money to a charity or have a gift-free Christmas.
Alternatively, open gifts away from each other in different rooms or once you have left each other’s company.
If that isn’t an option, practise some generic phrases such as ‘thank you for this, it’s great’ to say automatically as soon as it’s unwrapped before you’ve looked at the item.
This way, you won’t have registered your feeling about the item until after you’ve already shown gratitude.
Ask people what gifts they’d like, to narrow your search and reduce the overwhelm this tends to bring.
Traditions like sending cards, decorating the house, planning dinner for twenty people and organising elves every night can be tough with executive dysfunction.
Find ways to minimise these tasks.
Do you need to cook a Christmas dinner, or can it be something new and exciting like a pizza day?
Can guests bring a dish to lighten the load?
Rather than writing cards, send one email to your address book with a fun card attached, or send one via WhatsApp.
Decorate one room, such as the lounge, instead of the entire house, or get the family to each pick a room to do themselves.
Above all, keep self-care as a priority for surviving Christmas with ADHD and Autism- this is your holiday too.
It’s easy to prioritise everyone’s needs during this period, but if we aren’t also a priority, we can get ill.
Plan and schedule where you can, and ensure time for yourself is added into the calendar for all to see. If anybody questions this, explain the consequences without it.
Talk to people you trust about your ADHD or Autism, so they can understand your needs, and avoiding judgment.
Try to look at what can be put in place to reduce triggers during Christmas.
This could include creating a designated quiet space, using soft lighting and removing yourself when it gets too much.
If you find things too much, don’t be afraid to leave early or take some time out.
Key Points to Remember to Survive Christmas with ADHD and Autism
Spend time with those who make you feel happy and appreciated.
Share out tasks as much as possible so you aren’t overloaded.
Stop comparing yourself to others and telling yourself you ‘should’ be doing this and that.
Should is not invited to this festive season!
To hear more advice, listen to my Mind Vox Podcast episode about surviving Christmas with ADHD and Autism.