This is part 2 in a series of posts on how I survive the holiday (party) season. Here I discuss attending parties that are hosted by other people.
Ahh, The Party, the beast, the integral part of the holiday season for neurotypicals. The Party means tons of people, socializing, small unfamiliar places, new smells and unfamiliar foods that I am not interested in eating. It means a break in routine, and a massive change in pace. The total and utter sensory overload makes holiday parties a nightmare. Since there’s not the option of simply not going (especially when I was living with my mother growing up), I have developed several ways of avoiding the triggers that cause me to shut down. As with any difficult situation, the key is minimizing stress, so that when the additional stress of the party is added, it doesn’t reach the meltdown threshold.
First, I always eat before I go. I’m not enamored of most fancy party food, and being hungry is just another trigger. Sometimes there’s something I like to eat (plain bread, m&ms, etc) but usually I’m not able to really get enough food. Plus there’s so much going on that sometimes I forget how to eat, or I feel sick just thinking about intaking food. So I eat ahead of time. I always make sure that it is something I really like, so that there’s less stress beforehand, and I’m well fed. I also take my own water bottle to parties, because the little cups that they have for drinks get finished so fast, and they spill easily, and they’re not very transportable, and when you put it down, you can never seem to find it again. Bringing my own (closable) beverage container is just another way to keep myself comfortable. Plus it’s familiar and I know I won’t lose it, and I can take it with me when I need to escape.
I’ve been going to these parties my whole life, and the same family friends have them each year. Over the years, I’ve found various places in their houses that I can escape to (appropriately) and sit on my own when I need a break. I usually bring a book (or more recently, my kindle), and when it all gets too much, I simply go curl up in my “safe space” for a while. I used to have issues finding safe spaces, and would end up hiding in all sorts of places that are not appropriate (under tables, in people’s closets, behind couches, etc). Now I’ve learned to simply ask the host right when I arrive where I can go, before I lose my words. Sometimes I’ll even try to go over to the venue before the party to scope out a place. By limiting my time within the actual party and taking it in small increments, I am able to greet and converse with friends and family, and fulfill some of the social obligations set by my mother. Sometimes, I actually even enjoy myself some in what can be, when handled poorly, an incredibly miserable situation.
I often bring something like a Rubik’s Cube or other type of fiddly puzzle with me that I can be playing with while I interact with people. For one thing, it’s a conversation starter that I can talk about, but it also allows my hands to be doing something besides flapping or finger-spelling by my side or ripping things to shreds (and it keeps my mother from grabbing me and forcing my hands still). The Rubik’s Cube really helps, because it’s pattern oriented, most people accept that I’m smart when I am solving it, and its motions are comforting to me.
And finally, try to space the actual parties out. Going to more than one party in a day can be exhausting for neurotypicals, but the strain is much more for Autistics: we need time to recharge and relax away from the stressful insanity of parties. A few days in between social obligations is ideal, along with a return to routine between the events.
I will add to this a note that my mother (being the “super neurotypical” that she is) does not approve of the safe spot method, and will go find me in my spaces and yell at me for being “antisocial” and drag me back out, usually compounding the stressful situation and making it even worse, so this is not always a fail-safe way to make it through parties. She’s also not much of a fan of the Rubik’s Cube (since I don’t look at people when they’re talking), but she hasn’t tried to stop me as much in recent years. I hope that if you are a parent reading this you will recognize your youngster’s need for a break from the constant social and sensory input, and help them to not only “survive” these tough situations, but maybe even enjoy them. And if you’re like me, a (young) (adult) on the spectrum, and have survival mechanisms of your own, please share them!
DO: Find a safe space where you can escape. Take breaks away from the hubbub. Eat beforehand and bring your own cup.
DO NOT: Expect to eat a whole meal at the party or try to spend the whole time socializing.
TIP: A small puzzle or toy gives hands something to do and can serve as a conversational piece.
Edited To Add: As an adult, my friends have embraced me as myself, with all my quirks and craziness, and because of that, they are very accommodating to me when they have gatherings. They genuinely want to have me join them, and will go out of their way to make it “autism-friendly” for me, everything from a quiet place for me to go if I need to calm down, to food that I am able to eat, to nice quiet activities (puzzles, board games, etc.) and often smaller groups of people. As I have gotten older and more aware of how my brain functions, I have been better able to articulate what I need to function, and I have come across people who have bothered to listen.