As part of our Christmas information pack, our Information Officer Luke Aylward writes a piece about how he experiences the season, going through four different challenging areas and listing his coping strategies for each one.

In my near 34 years on this planet, I have been through a lot of Christmases. I feel fortunate to have spent at least one day per Christmas in the company of family, but this time of year isn’t all sweetness and light. There are many things about the season that throw me off course, begging for January to come around.

It differs from person to person, but being autistic, a few aspects about Christmas put me off getting into the festive spirit. I go through them all and have a couple of strategies for each area.

In amongst the crowds

One is the increasing volume of people I find myself in amongst, whether in the centre of Leeds, waiting for a bus or when going shopping. I am naturally averse to big crowds and when spending too long in one, I can become overloaded to the point of meltdown.

They occur more often during Christmas than at any other time of year, which makes going out more difficult for me. There are things that exacerbate crowding too, such as reduced bus services, the mad rush to buy food and presents before Christmas Day and New Year’s Day and the onslaught of Christmas parties.

My strategies:

  • Looking at times when the shops are open and going early or late on to avoid the crowds
  • Checking when buses are running, using the FirstBus app on Android
  • Avoiding the busiest areas of Leeds like Briggate and the Headrow

Off timing

My second biggest seasonal gripe is the way in which the calendar alters at this time of year. Trying to tell which day is which can throw me off my routine. Whilst I can cope with some changes, if a Tuesday feels like a Sunday for a couple of weeks like it might this year, preparing myself to get back to the my normal working pattern on a Wednesday can play havoc with my timing.

Sometimes, it can take me a few days to get back into my normal routine after a public holiday like Christmas or Easter. With Christmas being by far the longest, it’s the most difficult to adjust to afterwards.

My strategies:

  • Doing a calendar just for the Christmas/New Year periods to which day falls on which date
  • Waking up as normal and, if it’s a Bank Holiday or I don’t have to go to work, going back to sleep

Sensory issues

Going back to my dislike of being in crowds, they often bring plenty of noise with them. I do like loud noises in isolation – I love some forms of extreme metal – but when too many noises are made at the same time, sensory overload begins to take hold. At Christmas, it happens more than at any other time of the year.

This happens at parties, in the office, in busy shops, on packed buses and whilst walking on busy streets. For that reason, many parts of Leeds are no-go zones as Christmas and New Year draw closer. The movement of crowds also make it hard for me to navigate, whilst the bright lights can be triggering too.

My strategies:

  • Go out when it’s quieter
  • Wear headphones or earphones and listen to music to crowd out noise
  • Only go to parties if absolutely necessary

Festive masking

My final issue at this time is what I call “festive masking”. This is just like ordinary masking, where I try to act like those around me in order to fit in. I find that all the effort it takes for me to mask normally is ramped up even more during Christmas, where the number of social gatherings and the pressure to act happy and festive intensifies.

By the time Christmas comes round, the phrase “bring on January” becomes a regular catchphrase in my head. I feel the need to mask during Christmas meet ups and on the odd occasion where I go to a New Year’s Day party. Even if among people I know well such as my family, I mask a little.

My strategies:

  • Take as much time as I need to recover from any party
  • Try to mask as little as possible by being near people I know during Christmas
  • Only accept party invitations if I’m feeling up to going

We at Leeds Autism AIM wish you all a happy, comfortable and overload-free festive season.