Happy Holidays

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.

Pie

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’m older.
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.

It was a beautiful (albeit a little stressful) drive out into the woods

It was a beautiful (albeit a little stressful) drive out into the woods

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.  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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