Frontlines: How some people can’t face Christmas

Routine tends to go out the window at Christmas. Many of us struggle to cope with the stress, the hype and the search for presents for people who have all they could possibly need and more.

But most of us enjoy it and survive. Whatever your religion, or lack of it, the bright lights and overindulgence help us through the darker months.

Now think of the stress involved and multiply it many times. Imagine you have autism, like Peter.

Peter shares a house with three other people with learning difficulties. His housemates want the Christmas tree up early. They want to go Christmas shopping and sit in the lounge wrapping their presents. They want to write Christmas cards while listening to Slade’s Merry Xmas Everybody from the middle of November.

Peter likes the lounge to stay as it is. He doesn’t like the Christmas tree to be in the corner where the coffee table should be. He doesn’t want to go Christmas shopping.

The “triad of impairments” in autism is well documented: the difficulties in thinking and behaving flexibly, in communicating and in understanding other people.

Because Peter cannot communicate in the same way as most people he resorts to other ways. Like biting his wrists, or knocking over the Christmas tree, or turning off Slade. All of which doesn’t impress his house mates too much, because they’re just out to have a good time. But he doesn’t understand what they are thinking or feeling. So there we have the three impairments. If you were cruel enough to want to demonstrate them, Christmas would be the ideal time.

Of course we’re just on a continuum, and even if we don’t regard ourselves as being on the autistic spectrum, we are bound by routines to some extent. Many of us need that and get upset when it is disrupted, hence the seasonal stress levels.

Christmas has its own routines. For people with autism, or any of us who find it a difficult time, perhaps a gradual build-up would be easier to handle, to ease into the seasonal the routines. Unfortunately, others may have different ideas, as the town centres, the shops, the media and people rush headlong into a Christmas frenzy.

Jennifer Harvey is a carer and works with people with learning difficulties


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