I have a bit of a reputation of being anti-Christmas, mostly based on a blog post I wrote a few years ago. I am actually not at all anti-Christmas but I have a healthy respect for the challenge that the holiday season can give and especially give to neurodivergent folks – and gender divergent folks too for that matter.
I actually quite enjoy Christmas. In recent years I haven’t had the family variety but have done other things. One year I did nothing at all. I just stayed home and cooked a nice meal for myself and had a glass of wine. It was liberating! Last year I went to a trans and gender divergent ‘Festivus’ event at A Gender Agenda which was awesome. So many trans and gender divergent people have issues with estranged families and bigoted relatives making Christmas very difficult indeed. I am fortunate to have a family who are not at all bigoted around my gender – or anyone else’s gender for that matter! This year I am looking forward to spending a low key Christmas with my parents. This will be my first family Christmas for many years and because of this I am particularly looking forward to it.
However, for many people Christmas is not a pleasant event. A lot of my difficulty around Christmas is the expectations. It seems that everywhere we look in media, adverting and popular culture people are being enthusiastically engaged in gift giving, eating festive fare and connecting happily with apparently perfect families full of love. Looking at these images there is only happiness and enjoyment portrayed. It is hard to imagine these shiny people having a tough time. Then when we reflect on our own lives and everything is far from shiny and perfect this leaves a lot of people thinking they must be doing something wrong. One thing is for certain – we don’t see a lot of autism or neurodivergence in these idealised portrayals of Christmas. These expectations and messaging can be highly challenging, especially for children who might feel they are somehow ‘wrong’. I really don’t want any neurodivergent children – or adults – to feel ‘wrong’, especially at a time where we are supposed to be celebrating.
One thing that I have heard a lot about over the years is parents of autistic kids lamenting that their child is strongly averse to getting a photo with Santa at the shopping mall. I find this a bit frustrating. If the child can’t do the Santa picture then they can’t do it. Plain and simple. It is not a necessary part of life and if it upsets the child that much then why would anyone want to force their child to do something upsetting which is not actually necessary. How about being imaginative and doing something similar which the child can actually do? Maybe getting a parent to dress up as Santa and get a photo or ask the child if they want to dress up themselves for a photo? It can still be festive but it probably won’t cause the child stress and pain.
Santa Claus can be a cause of stress at Christmas for other reasons too. Many parents give their children the story about Santa but this can come with some difficulties for autistic kids. When I was a child we did not ‘do’ Santa so I told my school colleagues that it wasn’t true, leading to a fair amount of unpleasantness! Many autistic kids struggle when they discover Santa isn’t real. They feel their parents were being intentionally dishonest. The whole Santa thing can be quite fraught.
Gifts can be a challenge. Firstly many neurodivergent people are unemployed or underemployed. Gift giving can be extremely expensive and people may be unable to afford a lot of gifts. There are so many expectations around gifts. There are also considerations and unwritten rules about gifts, Some gifts – like candles or soap – are gendered as ‘female’ gifts and some are gendered as ‘male.’ To my mind this is silly and counterproductive and quiet offensive but many people subscribe to these gendered expectations. Autistic people often don’t ‘get’ unwritten rules like this. People can be very cutting and cruel to those who pick an apparently inappropriate gift. It is a complete minefield! I tend to think we shouldn’t have occasions where gifts are expected like Christmas and birthdays. Instead maybe if we see something a friend or family member might like we should just get if for them whatever the day is. There is so much waste going into landfill from unwanted gists and packaging.
Christmas is often a time of excessive food and alcohol. Autistic people often have routines and structure around food. Christmas food might not fit the routine and it might be difficult to adjust to this change. Christmas can also be overwhelming in terms of sensory input. It can be loud and chaotic with lots of people – including people you don’t usually see. Autistic people – especially kids but adults too – might be criticised by family members who don’t often see them and may not have a good understanding of autism – or who might just be garden variety bigots. There is a fine line between enjoyment and overload at Christmas for many autistic people.
I don’t really know how I feel about Christmas. As a child all the sparkly lights and food treats were awesome but as an adult it just seems to compound existing issues and I often think it might be better to not bother with the holiday at all.
I don’t want to be a killjoy or the grinch that stole Christmas but I think we need to be cogniscant of some of the issues with the season and the fact that for many neurodivergent people the holidays can be very stressful – well probably for anyone I guess.
Whatever you celebrate ad however you celebrate it I hope the holiday season is good for you this year.