Holidays can be stressful and emotional times for everyone – having Asperger’s usually makes it worse. I just experienced my first family get-together since my self-diagnosis, and the self-awareness and respecting myself really helped.
Ten years ago, when I first discovered that I was a Highly Sensitive Person, I often used “holidays at Gram’s” as one of my anecdotes to explain to people what it meant. Like this:
When I was little, we’d go to my Gram’s house for holidays. And at some point I’d suddenly tell my parents that I wanted to go home. Mom would say, “Okay, we’ll go in about half an hour.” And I would feel panic and even want to cry. I never knew why. I often liked playing with my cousins, I always liked visiting my Gram’s, and I knew that I was being “unreasonable.” But in those moments, I wanted to go NOW. I’d repeat that I wanted to leave, but I couldn’t articulate that I needed to, because I didn’t understand it. Instead I’d usually go in one of the unoccupied bedrooms and wait there. Now I understand that I was overstimulated, and I had reached my limit – as suddenly as if a switch was flipped.
We’d walk in the door and my senses were assaulted. Food smells, sounds, people moving around. I would also be physically assaulted – aunts with jangly jewelry, powerful perfume, and greasy-makeup-cheeks; uncles with scratchy mustaches; and a swarm of little cousins – all trying to hug and kiss me. I would back up; I would run away; I would squirm; I would actually punch them. They thought it was funny. Sometimes a relative would refrain from trying to grab me and voice that they knew I didn’t want to be hugged, but I often felt bad about that. The thing is, I crave physical touch. It’s one of my main “love languages.” But like most autistic people, I only want it on my terms.
I often felt like I didn’t fit in with my cousins. Not knowing about Asperger’s, I came up with several theories over the years, such as:
I live farther away.
We have nothing in common.
Those were all valid reasons why I felt different. . . but it doesn’t look like I have any aspie-relatives on that side of the family, so I faced the same social divide that I did with my non-blood peers.
At family gatherings – as well as at gatherings with our family friends – I’d frequently wander between the kids and the adults. I’d try to interact with my peers, feel bored and/or left out, and then go hang with the adults until they started talking about boring adult stuff (like people I don’t know). I might wander back and forth a few times or go find a quiet place to read or play my GameBoy. I always loved it when an adult like Aunt E. would pay me some special attention and make me feel less alone. If I was really lucky I would have a friend along; my parents were awesome about letting me take a friend (or two or more) to practically everything. Despite my social deficits I was blessed with some really loyal, understanding friends over the years. Holidays and other events were always easier when one of them was around.
So back to this year. . . we had Thanksgiving out at my pap’s hunting camp. I asked my mom ahead of time who was planning to be there. I had been out to the camp for Thanksgiving ten years ago, so I had memories of what to expect. When we arrived I dutifully gave hugs and made some effort to join conversations, then sat on the couch for a bit and played a few apps on my phone (no service out there, so I was stuck with offline games- mainly a crossword puzzle app and Flow, which felt rather “stimmy” ). I interacted when spoken to and occasionally joined back in when there was a conversation that interested me, but I didn’t push it. I respected that I have a limited number of spoons for social interaction and didn’t make myself feel guilty for taking breaks. I was still in the same room, after all. I interacted a bit with my cousin’s 1-year-old and took some pictures. And after eating our delicious dinner I sat at the table and had a good conversation catching up with a few people. I had respected my limits, and my relatives were all social in a non-threatening way, not saying anything about me occasionally sitting quietly by myself. At one point I thought, “I’d like to go home now,” but I didn’t bother saying anything because I knew I could last a little longer. The switch had not yet flipped. Success.