In my private practice I’ve noticed a trend. Around November, old, current and new clients call wanting to schedule sessions to talk about one topic: the holidays. The trend is not surprising: most therapists find themselves busy at this time of year, when expectations and realities can clash, and even the most mature find themselves stuck in teenager roles and feelings long since discarded.
But for a therapist who counsels adults with Asperger’s the increase in client need may be surprising to some. Aren’t Aspies supposed to be unconcerned with the judgments of others, even family members? Don’t Aspies face holiday family time with few, if any, expectations for intimacy or fun? Don’t Aspies who find themselves alone during the holidays consider their solitude a “Get Free Out of Jail” card, rather than a reason for loneliness or depression? After all, Aspies don’t really seek out relationships, right? If any of these assumptions sound familiar to you, beware of the Aspie Stereotype, which pervades media (think “Rainman”), research teams (think “Yale”), pop culture (think SNL’s “Nick Burns: The computer Guy”) and even some therapist circles (not me!).
Contrary to popular notions regarding Asperger’s, many clinicians, those who work in the trenches with adults struggling with the challenges of Asperger’s, find their Aspie clients confused and overwhelmed by the holidays. Most of us harbor conscious or unconscious expectations about the holidays – how they should feel, who they should be spent with, how tall the tree should be, who should host dinner…the list can go on. A lack of awareness of one’s own “rules” regarding the holidays can set the stage for confusion, disappointment, impulse coping skills and depression. If you have Asperger’s, you may be surprised at your own “automatic” answers to questions such as:
Should holidays be spent with friends or family? Should loved ones exchange gifts, or not? Who should travel where for the holiday celebration? Tinsel, or lights? While these questions may seem trivial, they’re not – and often they shed light on our automatic thoughts that go unchallenged and cause problems. For instance, if your “rule” is that Christmas or Hanukkah is a commercialized money-making holiday to benefit department stores, you may refuse to participate, and thus miss genuine opportunities to connect with loved ones. If you automatically decree that holidays should be spent with family or friends, you may miss the comfort that solitude can bring you.
Please don’t fall into the trap of trying to live up to what you think “normal holidays” (an oxymoron) should be like. Holidays for Aspies are often riddled with “shoulds”, which trigger resentment and resistance. Adults with Asperger’s who give themselves permission to meet their own unique needs for togetherness and solitude, fun and rest, engagement and disengagement, often find themselves less pressured, less anxious and more accepting of themselves and others. This balanced approach can prevent total shutdown mode, which is a natural response to over stimulation and helplessness.
Here are some tips Aspies may find helpful:
Plan for taking breaks during visits. Examples are taking a walk outside, taking a nap with a book, taking some quiet time for deep breathing, taking a quick ride or offering to run an errand in the car, playing a video game with someone or alone, or announcing a time-out and removing yourself from the group.
Schedule realistically. Over scheduling during the holidays can lead to burnout when being around people is gratifying, but stressful (or just plain difficult). While it’s great to push yourself to socialize, the holidays are a time to be reasonable – don’t expect yourself to go from no parties to three or four in a month. Beware of the lure of substance use. Many of us rely on the cocktail or two to help ease party anxiety. While there may not be too much harm in this, most clinicians see a surge in substance use during the holidays, which can lead to hangovers, a shaken sense of self, embarrassment, or worse. Remember that as long as you’re using substances to quell the anxiety, you’re not truly growing in your ability to handle social situations.
Be extra kind to yourself. This sounds corny, and it is. But think about it: we spend so much time during the holidays thinking about giving to others (or avoiding it!), but how much do we think about truly giving to ourselves? This is the time to use kind words and actions to take care of yourself. Ideas include buying or checking out a new book, going to the movies alone, eating a favorite meal, spending quiet time petting the cat. Seek help if you need to. Holiday therapy can be a temporary bridge to January 2! Here’s to your success in creating a holiday this year that you can anticipate with groundedness and optimism.