Dear Dr. Amy:
I was diagnosed with Asperger’s in my mid 30’s. When I received my diagnosis, it explained many things for me, including some of my relationships with family members. All my life my family told me to stop being “weird”. As I look back, I can see how they bullied me. The holidays are approaching, and my family wants to celebrate the holidays together. I would rather be alone or with a few select friends. Is it OK for me to choose my friends who accept me as I am over my family who tries to make me act “normal”?
Dear Needing Advice:
It is acceptable to spend the holidays with friends rather than family. As an adult, you get to choose those with whom you want to surround yourself. If you find that being with family is unpleasant, you can choose to be with friends, or you can even choose to spend the day alone relaxing. However, it is important to remember that there might be consequences to making a choice that your family doesn't like. You'll need to balance your needs with the wants of others.
Over the holidays, it can be helpful to use the
to determine how much energy you have for certain tasks. In spoon theory, individuals with a disability or chronic illness have less energy to complete tasks. Spoons are used to represent energy units, and each task you must complete uses up a certain number of spoons. For someone on the autism spectrum, tasks may take more spoons than they would for a neurotypical person.
If you have only 10 spoons per day to use, you have to make choices about how to use them. For instance, if going to work takes four spoons, you have six left for other tasks. If you need to stop at the store on the way home, that might take two spoons, leaving you with only four spoons left. Being with family might take six spoons, leaving you at negative two. Spoons can be regained through rest or sleep.
Spoon theory can help you determine who drains your energy and who helps to refill your spoons. It also can give you an idea of how much time you feel capable of spending with each group of people. Maybe lunch with the family is only two spoons but a full afternoon vaults quickly up to five or six spoons. Thinking about your spoons can help you set appropriate boundaries with your family so that you have enough energy to make it through the holiday season.
You can decide if you would prefer not to spend any time with your family because seeing them uses too many spoons, or if there are ways that you can see them that are less draining. Is it easier to see a movie with them or eat a meal without hanging out? Think about whether you want to keep up relationships with your family, and how much time you would need to invest to do so.
While you have the right to spend your time with people who treat you well, you might want to spend some time thinking both about how you will set boundaries with your family, and about what their reactions might be.
For example, if your family does not understand autism, they may call and ask why you aren't coming to events or tell you how sad it makes them. Be prepared to let them know what your boundary is ("I don't have energy for family holidays this year"), and to enforce it ("If you keep asking me to come over, I am going to end this conversation."). This might take a lot of spoons, and can be stressful or anxiety inducing. Remember that you deserve to be around people who treat you well and that over time the boundaries will become more normalized and easier.
There also is a possibility that your family will again bully you if you set boundaries with them. Plan ahead to take care of yourself if that is the case. Do you have a close friend who can remind you that you aren't weird or wrong? Can you engage in self-care, like using a good fidget, snuggling under a weighted blanket, or watching a comforting movie? It may be a good idea to have all of your tools on hand before you tell your family you won't be joining them.
It can help to focus on the fun times you will have with your chosen friends, or even by yourself. The holidays are about spending time with people you love, and if you choose to prioritize people other than your blood relatives, that's OK. You deserve to be treated respectfully and with love. The fact that you have recognized who makes you feel positive in your life is a huge step. Good luck on navigating the holidays!