Young woman in jumper, smiling

Hermione Cameron is a 26 year old autistic writer and a Content Officer at the National Autistic Society. She writes about the joys and challenges she faces over Christmas, the importance of having time to yourself on Christmas Day, and the social minefield of Christmas present etiquette.

'Tis the season for overly cheerful tunes, frantic online shopping, and trying to work out whether it is socially acceptable to use more than three pieces of cellotape when wrapping a present...

That isn't to say that I don't enjoy Christmas. As a Christian, it's nice to be reminded of the story of Christmas, and I do love a good Christmas carol. I also like the feeling of joy and camaraderie, being with family and having an excuse to over-indulge in chocolate and alcohol.

However, I do find Christmas incredibly overwhelming. The social pressures of day to day life, along with my tendency to 'over-think' are enhanced during the festive period.

It may be a first world problem, but the pressure of buying the right gifts for people and having to spend a lot of money really stresses me out. There are just so many factors to consider: What if they hate it? What if I haven't spent enough money on the gift (because nothing says ‘I love you’ like money, right?)? Or what if I've spent too much money on them and show up everyone else who has bought them a less expensive present?

There's also the whole issue of receiving gifts. When family members ask me what I want for Christmas I often have no idea, don’t really care, or don't really want anything at all. Then, when the big day rolls around, there’s the challenge of having to convey the right amount of enthusiasm when opening a present in front of the person who gave it to you, even if you are not particularly happy with said present or if you feel completely neutral about said present.

There are just too many unwritten social rules when it comes to Christmas present etiquette.

I also struggle with the general enforced merriment of Christmas Day itself, the pressure to be happy, and with socialising for hours at a time. Luckily, over the last few years my immediate family and I have had Christmas at home, with aunts and uncles, cousins and grandparents visiting. This means that when the social interaction gets too much I can subtly retreat to my room for an hour or so – usually without an explanation needed. As much as I would love to be open and honest with everyone, it’s too hard to explain to someone you love that - even though you may enjoy talking them – you feel like you might die if you have to spend another second in the company of other people. It’s sort of an “It’s not you, it’s me” situation. When I start to feel the panicky, clenching feeling (as though my insides are being squeezed in), brought on by sensory and social overload, it is important for me to have somewhere I can hide for a bit. When I do this, I still feel slightly guilty and selfish for temporarily abandoning the festivities. I sometimes feel like I’m weak, or ashamed that I am often the only family member taking a break. I often think, “why am I the only one?”. Sometimes I really envy my family members for being able to socialise for such a long time without having to fight off panic attacks. I am slowly accepting that I am not them, and that this is the way I am.

Like with many traditions, there are so many social rules around Christmas, which can be difficult for some autistic people. I can see how this could easily lead to social isolation. I really hope that, as understanding increases, this can change and that by sharing our experiences, we can reach out to other people who may feel isolated. I am very fortunate to have a great support system, and to be able to spend Christmas with loved ones, despite the challenges the season may bring up for me.

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