Winter holidays are all about people. And as hard as that is for me as an adult with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and anxiety disorders, that’s also why I love them! In the hope that other adults or teens with ASD can benefit from my mistakes and experiences, I’ve compiled my tips for dealing with the holidays.

Give When You’re Out of Money and Ideas

If you’re like many adults with ASD, you struggle with employment or finances. Try not to panic if you can’t afford expensive presents. When choosing and making presents for your loved ones, it’s keep in mind that gifts are less about the actual objects and more about showing people you care.

If you have a little money but you aren’t sure where to spend it, search through cheaper stores to find fun items. Used bookstores often have a dollar-book section and websites sell other people’s books and DVDs. Thrift shops, yard sales, stoop sales, and dollar or discount stores offer less expensive toys, clothes, and knick-knacks.

Or do it yourself! Homemade cookies in a plastic bag, collages, cartoons, paintings, music recordings, and poems are thoughtful, personal gifts. Even if you can’t draw a stick figure, you can recycle old magazines into homemade wrapping paper.

“Coupons” representing gifts of time or service—completing somebody’s chores, walking somebody’s pets, taking somebody to a concert, fixing somebody’s computer, or teaching somebody a skill—are another classic. If you go with coupons, be sure that you follow through. There’s a saying when people fill their plates with twice as much food as they need: “Your eyes are bigger than your stomach.” Akin to that, I’ve had “Your heart is bigger than your brain” moments where I gave spectacular coupons but never ended up acting on them. Also, be sure that your gift isn’t something you’re already expected to do in everyday life.

A gift isn’t about us; it’s about the other person. If I’m unsure about what a relative likes, I ask them or someone who knows them well. With key information such as their favorite animal, color, and hobby, I can choose or make any number of crafty gifts that they will appreciate. My great-aunt loves birds, so this year, I’m painting her a bird on a blank book.

What do you get the person who doesn’t want anything you can afford or make? Be creative! Last Christmas, I gave one of my teenage brothers a charity greeting card. It represented manure to support families in developing nations with their farming needs. I filled the card with jokes and the gift was a success. (A caveat: This would not be an appropriate gift for anyone besides close siblings and friends.)

All bathroom humor aside, giving to charity is a nice gesture, and some sites have charity donation options as little as a couple of bucks. There are options to support wild and domestic animals, education, medical care, disaster relief, human rights, the environment, and disabilities! Try to choose something that aligns with your recipient’s belief system, not your own—a relative who avoids places of worship won’t want a gift of Bibles to kiddies, and Barack Obama’s biggest fan won’t appreciate a donation to a conservative group.

Charities often give you a free greeting card, but check whether you have to print it or if it will arrive via the postal service. To keep stress low, be sure to check the shipping time so your gifts arrive on time. Take travel plans into account. If I’m leaving on the 17th, it doesn’t matter if my gifts will arrive by the 23rd, since I’ll already be gone. I’d prefer to expedite shipping or have it sent directly to my parents’ house and order them not to open the package until I arrive!

Work the Holidays Without Working Yourself into a Dither

At the office, December is the month when interpersonal relationships skyrocket, which can be pretty scary while on the autism spectrum. Add holiday parties and the office politics of greeting-cards to “normal” workplace stress, and I’ll work myself into a dither.

I have a tendency to sometimes overshare, which is disastrous in employment situations. For instance, the nonprofit I work for was talking about donations, and it reminded me of the story of the card that I gave my brother last year, which in turn reminded me of what a good idea it would be to start a charity greeting card program at our company. Instead of simply explaining that we could link donations to holiday cards, though, I launched into the whole story, right down to the fact that the card I gave my brother represented a gift of manure to farmers. My workmates seemed shocked that I brought this up at a meeting and joked about how I must feel about my brother if I “gave him poop for Christmas.” Long story short? Make the long story short. If I had stuck to the point instead of going through all the details, I could’ve saved myself the embarrassment.

It is good etiquette to give a card to your bosses and people who help you out. That doesn’t mean you have to stress yourself out and write one for everyone in your neighborhood, town, school, day program, or company. Ask what holiday the person celebrates, or stick with something non-religious like “season’s greetings”, snowmen, or cute winter animals. If Chanukah happened earlier this year than Christmas, you can give people belated wishes. Stay appropriate with your greetings. You don’t need to say everything you think, especially if it involves wanting to be BFFs with your awesome coworkers.

Homemade holiday cards warm people’s hearts more than store-bought ones. Be aware of different levels of relationships and what sorts of cards they warrant, though. At a former job, I spent hours making all of my coworkers and bosses personalized cards for several holidays and occasions. I later realized that my team members did not care about me as a person, much less consider me a friend, so I no longer throw all my time into winning every acquaintance over through handmade greeting cards.

Realize you may be required to work holiday parties or events. As a representative of your company, you may need to talk to customers. I think out what to say and practice in advance. A script can help me to get through the initial fear of approaching customers. Also realize that you have to request days off in advance. That said, stand up for your rights—calmly and respectfully — if you feel your employer is breaking your contract or overscheduling you.

Don’t wear the same outfit twice because it’s considered bad hygiene. I recently realized that my team members can’t tell that I am wearing clean clothes when I wear the same hoodie every day, so I’ve taken to switching off my sweaters.

Travel When the Sleigh’s Jingle Bells are Too Loud

Transportation gets hellish around the holidays. Plan ahead, leave extra time, and don’t take the last possible train home, because if something doesn’t go right, you’ll be stuck. Making alternate travel plans is important. I learned the hard way that taxi cabs won’t save me from my executive dysfunctions if I am on time but forget to bring a way to pay the driver!

If there is any way possible to reduce your sensory issues on subways, trains, and buses, do so! I have a hard time when the subways and city buses get crowded. With more tourists exploring my city around the holidays, rush hour becomes a nightmare. Because there is too much stimulation, I sometimes panic and get off the subway or bus before my stop. During travel, I’m more sensory-comfortable when I wear noise-cancellation headphones, bring a pompom to fidget with in my pocket or a logic puzzle or word game to play, and remove my jacket before boarding a heated train car.

If you’re like me, you live somewhere that gets chilly in winter, yet you can’t rely on your sensory system to tell you if you’re hot or cold. The other day, I decided not to wear a hat outside. Then it snowed, and I was sorry. Wearing layers and keeping a hat, a scarf, and an umbrella in my messenger bag keeps me prepared for constantly-shifting winter weather.

Interact When Anxiety Flies Higher than Santa’s Reindeer

Family gatherings can provoke anxiety. We usually attend a giant after-Christmas party with dozens of aunts, uncles, and cousins, not to mention dogs and cats and clinking glasses and a piney tree and flashing cameras and television and music. How do I start a conversation with my cousins or end one with someone’s neighbor? What’s in that pudding and do I really want to eat it? And how can I have fun when I feel like hiding in the attic?

Yes, it’s a lot of sensory input and socialization, but the truth is, I love family reunions because I love my extended family. So I bring a bag of things to do—a book, a journal and pen, a music player and headphones—for when I need to chill out. If I get too overwhelmed, I take a walk in the cold air. When I take enough breaks to disengage, I can enjoy spending time together with large groups of relatives!

In general, I like to eat food and drink water before and during travel, work, and holiday events. Otherwise, a forgotten stomach can add to my anxiety. Bringing copious amounts of your favorite food to share makes you look like a generous guest while caring for your own needs.

Manage Issues So Decking The Halls is Fun

Managing anxiety is easier when I have more control. Because I get nervous when I don’t know what I’m doing, I use my schedule to plan out my holiday season. In your schedule, don’t just pencil in tough stuff like work or travel. Plan in fun, too! Whether it’s seeing your friend, researching your special interest, treating yourself to cocoa, or taking a hot bath, your version of “fun” belongs in your planner surrounded by smiley faces and exclamation points!

One of the hardest things for me to admit is also the biggest relief: No matter how hard we try, there will be something that goes wrong, and no matter how well we plan in advance, there will be something that throws us off. So give yourself permission to have your meltdown, but afterward, go with the flow! We can’t control what happens, and sometimes we will have to put up with uncomfortable situations.

When confusing and spontaneous things occur this holiday season, don’t blame yourself for having a brain that appreciates the subtleties of structure! Handle it in stride. You are competent and way more adaptable and holiday-savvy than you ever realized. And if the Christmas lights are too bright? Squint, hide under your hat, pull out your sunglasses, or look away. Everything is going to be okay.

Photo of out-of-focus multicolored holiday lights
Holiday lights