So you have made it through one of the most stressful times in the year—the holidays, but it seems that your loved one with autism is taking a longer than usual time to get “back to normal.” The holidays are filled with social situations, shopping, unexpected surprises, family gatherings, and many deviations from the normal routine, all of which can cause the autistic individual to become overloaded. Getting back to “normal” can take some time.
Many Hours of Sleeping
You may notice that your autistic child, loved one, or partner is sleeping an unusually long period of time after the holidays. They may need to sleep in late, or have difficulty staying awake, getting motivated, or conjuring up energy. The sensory stimuli that the holiday exposes an autistic person to, even when the children are excited about the holidays can take a toll. After pressing through and meeting “social expectations” the individual with autism needs time to recuperate, and reboot. This form of “shutting down” is necessary to their recuperation. Allowing as much rest as possible will help them to get back to “normal” more quickly.
Needing Extra “Alone” Time
Social gatherings can be overwhelming even if they are only small family gatherings, and for the autistic person they are absolutely exhausting. You may notice your autistic child become more engrossed with their “special interests,” or an autistic adult express a need to be alone. They are not rejecting you or the family, but they do need this alone time. It is a time to decompress and get grounded again. The constant hustle and bustle of the holiday season causes a need for more time alone. Everyone needs time to decompress, and relax but the autistic child or adult may need more time than a neuro-typical person. Usually an autistic individual needs about the same amount of decompression time as social time expended—meaning that if they socialize for an hour, they need an hour “alone time” to recuperate. During the hectic holidays, or at any time socialization is at an above normal rate, that recuperation time can be doubled.
Getting Back to Their Routine
Autistic people thrive on routine. They need to know what to expect, and anytime they are out of their regular routine it is a source of stress. Children and adults may manifest this stress by having trouble sleeping, or become extremely irritable. Meltdowns can easily follow when routines are disrupted, which is exactly what happens during the holiday season. Adults are shopping, visiting, and taking time off of work, and children are often home from school on winter break. Normal routines are interrupted, and your autistic child may not be able to “feel” better until they are back in their normal routine. That is not say that they do not love time off of work and school, or spending time with the family, but it does mean that they will be more susceptible to feeling overloaded, and irritable, and sometimes even panicky.
Holiday madness and stress can affect everyone with or without autism. Feelings of exhaustion are common. However, it is important to understand that the individual with autism is likely more physically, and emotionally exhausted than the “normal” or neuro-typical individual. Allowing extra time to rest, and to work with special interests will help them to recuperate more quickly. Sticking as close as possible to regular routines can also help alleviate some of the holiday stress.