The Expectation Equation: Managing Holiday Stress as an Autistic Adult

Becca Lory Hector
Blog Post

The holidays are a time of joy, gratitude, and kindness, but for some of us, it’s also a time of stress, grief, and trauma. With all those emotions rolling around, it can be a confusing time of year, filled with social and familial obligations stealing our energy and an overload of shopping, presents, and food. It’s a time of year when even the good things can just feel like “too much.”

A few years ago, I discovered something interesting about the way the people around me act during the holidays, something I call fondly “The Expectation Equation.” Without fail, each year folks conjure up what they imagine the perfect holiday to be. Dinners are planned, sales are shopped, decorations adorn the houses, and the tinkle of holiday music fills the air. As invitations to multiple holiday parties hit our inboxes, the holiday expectations begin to pile up.

Here’s the thing about expectations: they are based on probability. Meaning, when we set expectations, we should already know that we cannot be certain of their occurrence. But for some reason, when it comes to holiday expectations, folks forget that part. As they get caught up in the emotions of the holidays, and the memories (good or not) get stirred up, the fact that expectations are not necessarily reality gets forgotten.

For autistic adults, managing stress during the holidays comes down to balancing “The Expectation Equation.” On one side of the equation, you have expectations about what the holidays could or should look like. On the other side, you have the expectations that the outside world has for you (aka society, friends, family, etc.) Finding the balance between the two seems to be where all the stress comes from.

During the holidays, autistics are asked to bend and shape themselves with more pressure than almost any other time of year. The bending and shaping demands during the holidays often come from the expectations of those we care about, making it even more complicated to take care of our needs. Similarly, our own expectations of how much, and what, we should be able to tolerate and “push through” can also compound the pressure. Autistic adults trying to meet the holiday expectations of others, especially those who don’t understand our needs, rarely ends well. It often means masking for long periods, pushing our sensory systems to the brink, and leaving ourselves depleted from too much peopling.

Similarly, setting your own holiday expectations, can also lead us right into trauma territory. Many of us hold tightly to holiday traditions and things happening the same way, only to find that change comes, even to the holidays. We may imagine holidays filled with quiet solitude, where others seek connection, only to find ourselves feeling lonely and isolated instead. We might try to create newer, more inclusive holiday traditions, only to find others stuck in their ways.

In other words, holiday expectations + holiday reality = holiday disappointment.

This year, when attempting to manage holiday stress, try managing your expectations instead. Know that your expectations, and the expectations of others, are never a certainty. With human emotions involved, there are just too many variables. Instead, replace your expectations with judgment-free, clear communication of your wants and needs, while remembering that it is not your responsibility to meet the holiday expectations of others. Be mindful of creating expectations of yourself, as well. Holding yourself to a higher standard than others is yet another way we add pressure to an already stressful time. Navigating the holidays can be really complicated, but if we remove the unnecessary expectations, our opportunity for holiday joy increases exponentially.