I have written quite a bit about how hard Christmas and New Year can be for autistic people, but it’s also worth saying how hard January can be. December is full of change and we all know how hard that can be, but by the time you have started to get used to it, it all changes back again. What you eat, what time you go to bed, your routine, the decorations everything goes back to normal pretty quickly. Because it’s going back to normal it might not seem like as big a change, but it is, and it can in fact be even worse. At least with Christmas you get time off or nice food – the change might be hard, but for a lot of people it at least comes with positives. But January is an almost universally hated month to begin with; nothing much happens in it for most people, the fun of the holidays is over, and everything changes back to normal within a day or two.
For autistic people there is also the fact that January can be spent dealing with the build-up of sensory overload that can come with Christmas. It’s not uncommon for a meltdown to occur days, or even weeks after the event that trigged it. There have been times where I have become overloaded due to going out, but have seemed to be doing quite well for three or four days after only to have a meltdown the next week. In December you have a month full of change and things that can lead to a build-up of overload, and the knock-on effect of that can be felt well in to January.
So when you put those things together you have a month that can be pretty dull and grim anyway, starts with a big change all of its own, and is more than likely still being impacted by the events of December.
What can you do about this?
The first and most important thing is just to be aware of it. That might sound strange or not specific enough, but it is extremely easy to forget all about how hard January can be. December is over and that is the month that draws attention to itself; the changes are very clear, and it’s easy to see what impact they might have. But everything changes back so fast it’s easy to forget how long that impact can last, and also to forget that the change back to normal life is a huge change all on its own. Add that to the fact that the year is literally changing, and you can see why you should be aware of how hard January can be, but also why it often gets forgotten about. Just being aware of the issues that might arise will help. If you’re feeling overloaded or stressed-out remember why that might be, and perhaps be on the look-out for signs of a meltdown, or just keep in mind that just because the year changes the build-up of overload will not go away.
Another idea might be writing down how things will change, and if these changes will be good or bad. This is something worth doing at the start of December too, and it might be that you do it all in one go – talking about how things will change for Christmas and New Year, and how they will change back. Or you might do another chart for January talking about how things will change back, how this makes you feel and what the impact will be, for example less time around the house, different food, and the fact that that might make you feel more stressed or overloaded. (If you want to find out more about our strategies for dealing with transition check out our book on the topic https://www.jkp.com/uk/helping-children-with-autism-spectrum-conditions-through-everyday-transitions.html )
If you can you might also ease yourself back in to things slowly. So plan things out: What day are you taking your decorations down? When are you going to change your diet? Perhaps don’t plan one day to switch everything back, spread it out over the first week or so of the year so that it is not so overwhelming. If you have work or school then you will have a set day you need to be back at that, but perhaps don’t change everything on that date. So you could take you decorations down the day before or the day after so that the change does not happen all at once.
It might also be worth planning a few nice things to do in January. It’s a month most people dislike and it can be made better by having something positive in it. This will not work for everyone as making plans to do things outside the norm can sometimes just create more stress and change. For me a positive plan might be to try and get out for a few walks in the park. So nothing with any real social interaction or travelling, just something to help ease the tension in a house containing two overloaded, autistic people!
It might be that your plans are small and specific like mine, or it might be than having a few bigger plans works for you. Nothing will work for everyone, and everyone is different so just find what works for you and stick with it.
December and January can be hard months – fun at times, but also hard – and one key thing that you have to bear in mind is some, not all but some, of the change you can opt out of. You don’t have any control over school, college being closed, but perhaps if there are shifts on at work you could take them. You can’t stop everyone else putting up Christmas decorations, going out or having a party for New Years, but you don’t have to make a fuss about any of it. You don’t have to change what you eat, what time you go to bed, you don’t have to stay up till midnight, and if you work from home you don’t have to stop working or change your routine over the holidays. I am not suggesting that you don’t get in to the holiday spirit as lots of autistic people (like myself) love doing so even if it comes with some challenges. But what I am saying is that for some people not making those changes, and therefore having less to change back in January, might make this time of year a bit easier. And if that’s the case then my point is that you should do what works best for you regardless of any pressure from family, or society as a whole. That might be more of a tip for the coming December, but I just thought it was worth putting in.
With all that being said I don’t want to sound like I am being wholly negative about this time of year. It can be nice to start a new year and look forward to the year ahead. It’s just that I know from my own experience that it can also be a hard time of year. Hopefully you all had a good Christmas and New Year, and January is not proving to be too difficult for you.
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