To People on the Autism Spectrum Who Struggle With Holiday Gatherings
I love sports. I grew up playing soccer, basketball, football, and for a brief moment, I even ran track. Some of the greatest lessons I learned didn’t happen on the basketball court or the football field — they happened on the track.
A few months ago, in an effort to explain to someone how autism spectrum disorder impacts how I socialize with others, I gave an analogy that social interaction is like running sprints for me. I can do it but not for long periods of time. As helpful as that analogy was at the time, I must confess that I lied. Socializing isn’t like running 100-meter sprints — it’s more like running the 100-meter hurdles.
As an adult with autism spectrum disorder, I’m learning most people don’t have the opportunity to see my intense internal struggle with navigating social situations. If you want to really see me struggle, however, put me in a room full of family and friends during holiday gatherings. Just the thought of it scares me to death, so over the last year, I’ve learned to take a few lessons from the track and turn them into strategies for handling the “holiday hurdles.”
One of the first keys to being able to run well is to have good shoes. A few years ago, I tore my right Achilles tendon while playing basketball. Following my surgery, my doctor made me purchase athletic shoes that provided me with the proper support.
I’ve learned that living on the autism spectrum requires me to have support. I can’t run my race without support. My wife is committed to helping me navigate social situations by helping me feel safe, feeding me cues and clues and recognizing when I’m beginning to feel overwhelmed and stepping in to give me some relief. Before you head into the hectic holiday hurdle race, make sure you have the support you need.
Anyone who has ever exercised knows that stretching before running is extremely important. Stretching makes you more flexible and can improve your performance as well as prepare your muscles for rigorous activity. Life on the spectrum often means holiday socializing can be scary, but try to warm up to the idea a few days in advance. I like to spend time mentally preparing myself to interact with people. Spend time alone, do things you enjoy with no interruptions and then slowly warm up to being more social.
If you’ve ever watched a 100-meter hurdle race, then you’ve probably noticed the runners on the track warming up by jumping a few of the hurdles before the race actually begins. What they’re doing is actually creating a system for maximizing their steps. Jumping hurdles requires a system. Identifying your “lead” leg is crucial, because it’s the leg that goes over the hurdle first.
Here’s my point: Jumping the holiday hurdles is a little easier when you have a system. Determine your “lead” leg by working on your script in your head. It doesn’t hurt to have a few conversation topics ready, so you can comfortably engage with others for a few moments. When you’re jumping hurdles, every step is important, so spend time preparing yourself for the occasion by doing as much as you can to find out who will be there, what you will be expected to do and how long the gathering will last.
Running a great race means getting off to a great start. When I consider spending time in large social settings, I try to get off to the best start possible. This means I try to start my day off with something positive, and when I actually arrive at a large social gathering, I try to start off the time with as much interaction as I can. I know myself well enough to know that I won’t feel like socializing after an hour. But if I get off to a good start by engaging people at the beginning, I feel more secure, and others feel they had an opportunity to spend time with me. This works great for me because after a big holiday meal, most people end up sleeping anyway, so I don’t feel as awkward when I need to slip away and be alone.
Jumping hurdles takes a ton of energy, so what you do in between hurdles is very important. A good hurdler has a decent stride in between hurdles. A stride is a long step, so depending on your personality and social capacity, determine a pace that works well for you. But by all means, take as long as you need in between hurdles. Don’t rush from one social activity right into the next. A good pace can actually protect you in the long run.
OK, so this one doesn’t start with an “S,” but it does make for a good ending. Running hurdles requires a good start, but it also requires an excellent finish. The holiday season is filled with sensory overload, social anxiety and mental and emotional fatigue, so have a plan for how you will finish the race. Have an exit strategy. Life on the spectrum isn’t easy, and lots of people won’t understand why you just can’t stay for another hour. But no matter how things turn out, learn to celebrate the fact that you ran your race and you ran it well.
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