Skip to main content

News and Knowledge

The holiday season can be a fun, but sometimes stressful, time for autistic people. On one hand, the season may include quality time spent with family and friends. However, it can also be a deviation from
one’s routine which may include heightened sensory sensitivities and stimuli that can make the experience uncomfortable.

In this interview, Anna Robinson, a 2022 Synchrony scholar, shares some of her favorite holiday traditions and memories as well as how she navigates stress during the season.

How will you be celebrating the holidays this year?

I’ll be at home in Charlotte, North Carolina with my immediate family, our two dogs, and my grandmother. We’ll be celebrating Christmas with our usual combination of homemade food, traditional holiday movies, and presents.

What are some of your favorite holiday traditions?

The holidays can be stressful for me, but there are a lot of traditions that I love around this time of year too. My favorite has to be my family’s annual re-watch of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. We cuddle up, pop popcorn, and savor the movies (extended edition, of course) over a couple of days. Even though we’ve all seen these movies countless times, they somehow never get old. Another favorite tradition is how every year on Christmas eve, the fire department in my area has someone dress up as Santa and drive throughout the surrounding neighborhoods on a fire truck throwing candy. My family and our neighbors have a lot of fun gathering and chatting as we wait for the fire truck to come around.

Do you ever feel overwhelmed or overstimulated during the festive season?

I’m overwhelmed by the holidays every year. As a child, I used to dream of growing up and not celebrating Christmas. The morning of Christmas, in particular, can be a lot. I love being with my family, but receiving a bunch of gifts at once was always overwhelming. Though I genuinely appreciate the things my family and friends get for me, I always felt this pressure to act radiantly enthusiastic in order to seem grateful enough. The ear-to-ear smiles, spontaneous hugs, and gushing thanks that usually go with gift-giving doesn’t come naturally to me, and it all felt false and exhausting. When I was younger, my mother talked to me about this. She proposed that instead of opening presents all on Christmas day, I could open presents gradually throughout the month of December, and just open one thing on Christmas day. That’s what we do now, and it’s helped a lot!

What tips could you provide others for navigating stress during the holidays?

Firstly, I would encourage you to be very kind and very honest with yourself about how you feel about the holidays. I used to feel like I was a bad family member because I didn’t love the holidays the way others did, but that framing didn’t actually help. It didn’t encourage me to find strategies for actually navigating the holidays, and it made it harder to relate generously to others when I was just focused on my perceived shortcomings. I’d also encourage everyone to think very specifically about what elements or rituals around the holidays are stressful to you, then focus on strategies for making those moments more bearable. Don’t be afraid to re-imagine beloved traditions or to excuse yourself from things that others enjoy but you don’t.

Many schools have a holiday break from mid-December to January. How do you maintain a routine throughout this time?

This one is hard! Honestly, what I’ve found most helpful is working during school breaks. Work gives me a steady routine that I have to stick to. Scheduling events with friends and family, or having a personal goal, like finishing an interesting book, can also help.

What are you looking forward to in 2024? How do you set yourself up for success for the new year?

I’m looking forward to graduating in 2024. I’m not sure what comes next, but I’m excited to discover where life goes! Right now, setting myself up for success in the new year has mostly meant doing the work for my classes and beginning to dream and plan what to do after graduation.

Anna Robinson received the Synchrony Scholarship for Autistic Students of Color in 2022, and it made a huge difference in her ability to afford her education. Now, she is a senior at Warren Wilson College in North Carolina, majoring in English. At Warren Wilson, she also works in the career services office. In her free time, she enjoys reading, baking, and board games.