‘Tis the season for meltdowns, burnout and desperately seeking excuses to escape social obligations… Sound familiar? Ah yes, it must be time go gather the family together for the holidays!

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t actually hate Christmas. It’s beautiful, the lights and the trees, the open fires and cold weather, the food and the wine, and the wine and the wine. I love this time of year, but what I don’t love is trying to manage the needs of a very neurodiverse family during this time.

It’s hard for us all. There is so much pressure for families to have the perfect Christmas, whatever that means… In reality, Christmas for my own family has just been almost three decades worth of unnecessary stress and huge struggles to meet all of our needs.

To quote my mother, “Although I love the sparkles of Christmas and opening presents with my family, the build-up to the day is overwhelming and I always feel emotionally exhausted. As an autistic mother with neurodivergent children, it has taken me a long time to realise Christmas doesn’t have to fit into others’ expectations, and it’s best to stop the misconcept of a perfect Christmas. Now we make it work for us and do precisely what we need to do for us”.

It’s never an easy task to ensure everyone is feeling safe and comfortable but hopefully if we can understand why this time of year is difficult for us neurodivergent people then we can be prepared for any trials and tribulations that may come along the way.

Change in routine

With neurodivergence (I will predominantly be referring to ADHD and Autism) comes a shared aversion to change. All the way through to the build-up to Christmas there are constant changes everywhere, you just cannot escape them! Some of them may seem small but to the individual it can be and feel like uncertainty and chaos.

Schools close, routines break, and everything just gets that little bit more hectic. There are things to plan, presents to buy, money to budget and so so much to think about. It’s a miracle some of us manage to function at times! It very quickly can become too much to bear and that’s not surprising.

The difference in having a neurodiverse family is that we all share these struggles. However, we are experience them in unique ways which adds another dynamic of stress on top. We all have difference routines, some strictly followed and some more relaxed. Trying to cater to everyone’s needs in nearly impossible…

Preparation and having high expectations

Like I mentioned, there is no such thing as “the perfect Christmas”, but it seems the pressure is always on to have the most incredible day, with amazing food and joy-bringing presents. We are always conditioned to try and make this happen, but in reality, there is no such thing as the perfect day…

In fact, I would go as far to say that having these unrealistic ideas ruin the day itself. The closer we get the Christmas, the more that pressure builds, and I can honestly say I have witnessed my fair share of pre-Christmas meltdowns. It’s not shocking to me either. These sorts of things are common in neurodivergent people without added tension.

What I have found help the most within the family, is just to acknowledge the expectations and just gently lower them. There’s no need to set unrealistic and stressful goals.  

Sensory Difference resulting in Sensory Overload

Lights everywhere. New smells. New foods. Loud music in shops and on the streets. The sensory input increases tenfold this time of year. Although it is magical, for those with a sensory difference it can be a living nightmare and even leads to meltdown.

Not only that, but we know it’s coming. When we are anticipating something, we perceive as danger we can become hypervigilant causing a constant state of anxiety. One aspect of anxiety that often goes missed is its ability to altern our senses. For someone with a sensory difference this can mean an increased sensitivity to smells, sounds and touch etc.

It’s draining, it makes you just want to escape and sit in silence in the dark. To be honest, I don’t see the problem with doing so. We can’t just make it all go way, so sometime the only option we have left is to take ourselves out of the situation. This of course will look anti-social to some people, perhaps even selfish. However, it is so vital we prioritise our wellbeing and ensure that our own needs are being met.

We can’t force ourselves or anyone else to adapt to new sensory experiences, but we can take the measures we need to in order to make it work for ourselves.

Excitement, socialising and burnout

Individual people have individual needs, neurodivergent or not. However, for my family when it comes to socialising and over-excitement, we quickly become burnt out. There thing with Christmas is that it’s a great time to catch up with everyone we haven’t seen for a while. Office parties, cheeky pub crawl, big family and friend dinners. It’s all great fun, yet it can take the toll on our social batteries.

It’s not that we don’t want to socialise, it’s just too draining at times. Perhaps even overwhelming and leading to the dreaded burnout.

It can be a very exciting time, but we really must check in with ourselves to ensure we aren’t pushing too hard and depleting too much of our energy.

Is it worth the stress?

The truth is… it’s not really. What’s the point of celebrating when we are forcing ourselves into stressful and anxiety inducing situations?

This doesn’t mean we should scrap it altogether, but perhaps what we should be doing is make the holidays suitable for our own collective needs. We don’t have to conform to the unrealistic standards of having “the perfect Christmas”, we can make it what we want and need.

Perhaps you scrap the roast dinner and order take away? Or decide not to decorate and just celebrate in a calm and familiar environment? Whatever works, works.

Of course, there may and probably will be judgement from other families, but everyone family has their own issues. We must avoid comparing ours to others and just enjoy our own celebrations in whatever shape of form we choose.