By Taylor Heaton
Last December I found myself crouched in the pool bathroom at my parents’ house, a prisoner to the sound that pushed in against the door as my large family gathered for our holiday dinner.
“How long can I stay in here without it becoming awkward?” I wondered.
My stomach was upset because rich food and social anxiety were never a good mix, and the clothes I originally felt cute and festive in were now pressing in on my diaphragm and making me feel panicky. But I knew I had to eventually brave the swarm of chatterboxes and fight for a spot at the “quiet table” which was really not so much “quiet” as it was spacious… more elbow room to protect my bubble which was now starting to show some serious wear-and-tear.
Holidays should be fun and carefree, right? At least that’s how others make it seem. Easy conversation, back-and-forth laughs, indulging in delicious food without it affecting your “vibe.” But at the age of 31, in that small pool bathroom, I realized that life was working differently for me… Somehow I knew that my brain processed information in a unique way. And maybe it wasn’t “normal” to stand back and observe others’ behavioral patterns, facial expressions, and conversational cadences while feeling unable to contribute anything to the flow of conversation.
Soon after my holiday experience I was professionally diagnosed as autistic. It totally changed my life. I started understanding that the upsetting labels that had been placed on me, like “too sensitive”, “anxious and stressed”, and “overthinker,” were either inaccurate or a very small piece of the picture. When I zoomed out, I came to realize that my brain is neurologically different. I pick up on unique patterns, have quirky observations, and make connections that are seemingly unrelated. My nervous system is almost constantly on high alert, taking in more sights, sounds, textures, lights, and scents than the average person. Processing all of that information is a full-time job that often makes me appear mute or boring. And it often leaves me emotionally and physically drained.
Over the course of my early life as an undiagnosed autistic, I trained myself to remove important regulatory processes like stimming and spending time in solitude. These practices came across as annoying or rude, so I learned how to go without them. The consequences were dire: autoimmune issues, high levels of anxiety during high school and college, depression, and social isolation. All of that unregulated stress had nowhere to go, so it kept creating new iterations of the same underlying issue: a dysregulated nervous system, one of the most common challenges related to life on the autism spectrum.
Fast forward a few years and I’ve learned a lot of helpful tools for supporting myself as a late diagnosed autistic adult, especially when it comes to navigating the holidays! For starters, I truly believe that my holiday experience is just as important as those around me. I don’t need to subvert my wants and needs in order to appear less needy or sensitive. I deserve to take up space and enjoy my life in a way that feels good to me.
In addition to this large mindset shift, I’ve also been able to incorporate some small practical supports into my life that add up to make a significant difference.
Here are some of my favourites:
1. Write down all holiday events on a calendar so you can visualize what to expect and when.
Plan “buffer days” before and after large events where you can do nothing, or whatever sounds good, preferably in a calm and subdued environment where there is little being asked of you. There are no rules for buffer days! Just do whatever feels good, whenever it feels good.
2. Stim! Stim all the time!
In small ways and big ways. The purpose of stimming is to dispel pent up energy that builds up from an overactive nervous system. If we don’t stim, the energy keeps building and building. I keep small fidgets in my purse, backpack, car, junk drawer, and desk. It always helps to keep my hands moving. But the true focus here is on reintegrating large stims back into your life. If you were late-diagnosed like me, chances are that you also trained yourself out of doing normal autistic things like rocking, bouncing, flapping, etc. But large stims are so important to life on the spectrum. Start regularly creating time to dance, jump, rock, bounce and flap the day away. Then take note of how your body feels after you do these things. Spoiler alert: You will feel better!
3. Make small sensory accommodations for yourself that allow you to feel more in-control of your environment.
- Wear comfortable clothes, especially comfortable shoes.
- Stay hydrated! Drinking enough water can help so much when you’re dealing with nervous system dysregulation. My advice is to buy a large water bottle that you keep with you all throughout the day and aim to drink half of your body weight in ounces of water.
- Keep “safe snacks” with you. Oftentimes neurodivergent people have a hard time with certain food textures, especially when visiting friends and family during the holidays. There are so many new things to process, and eating food you’re not familiar with can sometimes make things worse. It can help to keep foods in your purse or backpack that usually sound good to you, so you can make sure you are still consuming calories during the day. An empty stomach is a recipe for nervous system dysregulation!
- Wear noise-reducing earbuds like Flare Calmer. If you would have told me a couple of years ago that I would love wearing earbuds and that they would actually make a huge difference in my life, I wouldn’t believe you. But here we are, and I have a pair in my purse, my backpack, at my desk, and in my night stand. Calmer earbuds reduce upsetting high and low frequencies while still allowing you to hear voices and important sounds around you. The overall effect on me when I put my earbuds in can best be described as a large, calming sigh and relaxed shoulders. It’s like it adds a battery to my battery pack for the day’s festivities.
If you’re interested in other sensory supports, I specialize in creating resources for the neurodivergent community, specifically the autistic community, on my YouTube channel Mom on the Spectrum.
Here are some of my favorite resources:
- This is a 48-page guide that features autistic businesses, products, services, social media accounts, autism evaluation providers, online communities, book recommendations, medical services and more. It is free to be featured in the BARG, and donation-based to download (you can download for free if that’s what is best for you!).
- This is a 14-page booklet designed to give an overview of autistic meltdowns and how to support yourself before, during, and after one. The booklet covers the parasympathetic vs. sympathetic nervous system, potential meltdown triggers, sensory regulation and recovery techniques, panic attack recovery techniques, helpful products for sensory support, and reflection questions for personal growth.
How to Unmask: Cultivating Your True Autistic Self (self-paced online course)
- This course is a love letter to the autistic community and a call to take up space and discover who you were meant to be! It offers over an hour of on-demand videos, a reflection journal, guided meditation, and mantras for unmasking. For a limited time, enjoy a $40/off discount for Flare community members using the code: UNMASKINGSCHOLARSHIP23 at checkout.
- I offer regular community groups where autistic individuals come together to learn about autism-related topics and discuss our experiences. My current offerings include: Autism & ADHD, Holidays on the Spectrum, Monthly Connection/Support Group, and 2024 New Year Support Group.
And you can always connect with me through my website, www.MomOnTheSpectrum.life, and my social media accounts (@taylor_heaton_ on Tiktok and Instagram).
Above all else, remember that your sensory experience matters. You’re not too sensitive. Your body is finely-tuned and it is wise to trust your intuition. Gradually over time you will learn how to make changes that support your true needs and desires. You’re on your way to a more authentic and liberated “YOU.” Stay the course and be gentle with yourself along the way. You’ve got this.