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AuSM's highly trained, certified therapists have committed their careers to helping individuals with autism understand their diagnosis and address both the challenges and gifts that it can bring. 

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Barbara L. Photo 
Sara Pahl, MS, BCaBA, NCC

Beth Pitchford, MA

Dr. Amy Carrison, PsyD, LADC

Jennifer S. Reinke, PhD, LAMFT, CFLE
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Ask The Therapist

Dear Sara,
In the past, I have had a hard time getting along with some family members, and I am afraid that this year, during the holidays and post-election, it is going to be very difficult for me not to have a meltdown. I am very worried about the increased potential for difficult conversations that will overwhelm me. When I get overwhelmed, I meltdown, sometimes scream, and then shut down. It takes me at least a few days to get back on track. 
Fearful of Family Festivities
Dear Fearful,

For people with autism, the holidays may already come with increased anxiety given the social demands of the situations, the changes in routine, and the sensory overload. You are not alone in your worries on how to interact with others during the holidays. 

My advice is to know yourself or ask someone you trust who knows you well to help set up a "safety" plan for the holidays or upcoming weeks. This will include some general strategies for lowering stress, as well as strategies to help when you're at gatherings. 

You also can do other things that will help you relax and reduce anxiety. Here are some suggestions:
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Sleep as regularly as possible. If necessary, monitor your sleep to identify when it becomes sporadic or difficult to see what triggers the changes.
  • Are there rituals or routines you do every year around this time? Make sure you stick with your rituals and routines. 
  • If you have a friend or a therapist you are comfortable talking with, see if he or she can help you discuss some possible difficult situations and strategies for getting through them. 
Suggestions for holiday gatherings:
  • Ask for sensory accommodations if needed. Lower lighting, scent free guests, sounds. E-mail the host beforehand to explain your sensitivities.
  • Take time before and after the holidays to engage in activities that fill you up, or give you more ability to cope. This time to engage may be days or even hours before an event, depending on what your special interests or coping skills may be.
  • Make a list of what is important to you during the holidays as well as people in your life you may encounter during upcoming special occasions as well as what you might talk about with them. For example,"I enjoy my time with Aunt Susie because she likes to talk with me about World of Warcraft, or dinosaurs." These are the topics you will want to focus on. 
  • Work on a script to change topics or to politely excuse yourself.
  • Visualize thought bubbles and filters if it is helpful for you to regulate what you say. For example, you may think "what an idiot", but that stays in the thought bubble rather than being expressed verbally.
  • If you know there will be difficult conversations, try to think of your options for responding and the potential pros and cons of responses.
  • Make a list of topics you do like or are willing to talk about.
  • If you use a visual strategy for calming or socializing, bring it with you if you need to, rehearse or look at it before the event, or upload pictures to your phone so you can access it on the go.
When you are at family gatherings, it's important to decide ahead of time whether you want to engage in challenging discussions. I've created a table with four different possibilities: willing to engage in a difficult conversation, deflect, change, or exit a difficult conversation, avoid the difficult conversation, or avoid the environment with the potential for difficult conversations. Under each possibility are some things to remember and strategies to use.

Click here to view this discussion table.

The holidays and the new year can be stressful. When you add the current divisiveness going on in our country, upcoming events may feel even more overwhelming. You may not be able to change others' thoughts, but you can help yourself. If you do have a meltdown be gentle with yourself and find the things and people that help support you before, during and after the meltdown. If you are feeling depressed or even more anxious than usual, talk to a trusted person, journal, make an appointment with your therapist, or call a crisis line if you feel you need immediate assistance. We all need support us and a safe place to talk. 
The AuSM Counseling and Consulting Team offers therapy and support:
  • Diagnostic, functional or behavioral assessments for children, adolescents, and adults
  • Individual therapy
  • Family therapy
  • Developmental therapy
  • Behavior consultation
  • Marriage and couples therapy
  • Training for organizations and service providers
To inquire about our services or to make an appointment please contact AuSM at 651.647.1083 or e-mail
Established in 1971, the Autism Society of Minnesota (AuSM) is a self-funded organization committed to education, advocacy and support designed to enhance the lives of those affected by autism from birth through retirement.