Informative

Supermarket Trauma and the Holidays

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Hello folks, ‘tis the season to be jolly, regardless of whether you celebrate Christmas or not. I was raised Catholic and so I grew up celebrating it but given my decision to turn my back on God and be a heathen, I have swapped out the nativity characters and replaced them with dinosaurs. I thought it might be a nice idea if this post looks at some ways in which we can attempt to make the holidays more bearable for those of us with sensory difficulties.

As lovely as it is to have a break from uni, the Christmas break in particular can be quite difficult to manage when you are autistic. Just the other day I ventured out to Sainsburys to purchase: 1 carton of orange juice; 5 apples and a jar of smoked paprika. (I would like to assure you that these items were not to be eaten at the same time.) When I say that the supermarket was busy, I mean it was beyond anything I have ever seen before. Social distancing was as dead as a Metoposaurus algarvensis and the people working in the shop seemed to believe that playing Christmas carols at an aggressively loud volume would instead protect us all from corona. I considered turning around and trying again another day, but when a girl wants an apple, she will get that apple. My strategy was to slip around the sides of the supermarket keeping my face (with a mask on of course!) turned away from other shoppers and use my gloves to pick up my items rather than touching them with my bare skin. Readers will be glad to know that I successfully collected all my items. However, whilst I had been retrieving my 3 items from the shelves, the general hubbub of shoppers, combined with the music and the flickering, fluorescent lights loved by supermarkets had caused me to become extremely overwhelmed. Grocery shopping is still one of my biggest issues to date, yet this was almost ridiculous. I made my way to the self-service checkout to pay, yet when I got there I could not process what I needed to do. I prefer self-service because I have to interact with far fewer people, and yet this process that I must have done hundreds of times was beyond my comprehension.

I ended up standing in front of the machine, unable to move or ask for help, for approximately 7 minutes before I was able to remember that I needed to swipe the items across the scanner. All around me were beeps and noises and lights and I was completely rooted to the spot, baffled by what I was supposed to do. Eventually I managed to swipe my items and then after a further 4 minutes I managed to put my money in. Once the transaction was complete, I wanted nothing more than to absquatulate, yet I faced another problem: getting out of the shopping centre. (Absquatulate means “to leave hurriedly” or “to skedaddle” and is my absolute new favourite word. I am attempting to get as many people using it as possible in order that it may re-enter common vernacular!)

I managed to leave Sainsburys but then found myself standing in the middle of the shopping centre without a clue how to escape. By this time, I was breathing in quick, shallow breaths while my eyes were screwed up, trying simultaneously to see through my tears and to block out all the light. To cut a long and rather depressing story short, I ended up in front of the local cathedral, having a meltdown behind a barrier. I was wearing my sunflower lanyard which says on it that I am autistic, I sometimes can’t speak if I am very overwhelmed and that if I am in trouble, to call my best friend with the number provided. Only one person stopped to ask if I was okay. I managed to give them my lanyard to read as I was unable to speak, to which they promptly read it, gave me back my lanyard and walked away. After about an hour, I had calmed down enough to walk back home, which I did, getting straight into bed to try and recover as soon as I arrived.

So, what was the point of me telling you that story? Well, I would say there were two points:

  1. To make the point that how verbal and “functional” an autistic person is, is not a fixed quantity. It changes considerably depending on the situation. When I write these posts, I am in a quiet room inside where I live. I am able to focus on working without other stimuli distracting me, and so can direct more of my energy into communicating. One of the lowest points in my communication abilities involved me rocking on the street whilst hitting my own head and crying, not being able to understand what was happening around me or being able to make myself understood. I plan on talking more about varied communication levels in a later post.
  2. To demonstrate how Christmas time makes even the usual activities much more difficult for autistic people. I still have to eat and so shopping trips are still required.

I want to make some suggestions about ways that I have found to help lessen the stress around Christmas. Please feel free to ignore these completely or to suggest your own if either of those options sounds good to you! I have also attempted to split them into categories in order to put them in some semblance of an order.

Leaving the House:

Unfortunately, other non-autistic people exist in the world, many of whom are unintentionally inconsiderate. Therefore, the main piece of advice I can give is to try to minimise the number of trips you have to take. This might mean you try to visit all the stores you will need to throughout the week, in one day. Going at an off-peak time might also help, with Tuesday mornings being the best time I have found. Visiting smaller, independent shops is not only good for your local businesses but often also easier as they are generally less busy and have softer lighting and quieter music.

Staying away from large shopping areas is a good idea around this time, possibly doing most of your shopping online if possible. The good news is that with Corona precautions, if people are too close to you it is more socially acceptable now than ever before to shout “get away from me” and poke people with an umbrella. Provided you call the umbrella your “social distance enforcer stick”, I can’t see any problems with that. (I’m joking, please don’t start waving umbrellas around.)

Food:

Without wanting to feed into panic buying, it may be worth trying to get a few extra days’ worth of food in, so that you can go longer between grocery shops. Fresh fruits and vegetables will still need to be bought reasonably regularly, but items such as carrots and parsnip can keep in the fridge for slightly longer, and so you can plan your meals to incorporate them later in the week. I have recommended it to almost everyone in my life, but the BBC goodfood recipe for spiced carrot and lentil soup is absolutely delicious and very warming!

Many of us are also sensitive to different tastes, textures and smells, so different holiday foods can be tricky. I hate the smell, taste and texture of cooked egg and so if anyone is eating it around me I have to sit at the other end of the table. The same goes for spaghetti hoops, much to my brother’s annoyance. If you have a similar aversion to holiday foods that those around you seem to enjoy, might I suggest lacing the food with poison. No. That was a joke. Instead try asking them nicely if they would mind abstaining from the food while you are present, or at the very least warn you before eating it so you can absquatulate. (See, I got it in again! It’s a very useful word.) Alternative suggestions include outright banning it from your house, starting a conspiracy theory about it to try and put them off (I heard that spaghetti hoops make you more likely to spontaneously combust), as well as stealing any in the house during the night and mailing it to your favourite corrupt politician, just to try and confuse them.

If you are a minor and your guardians make you eat said food, regardless of how many times it makes you throw up, or how often you tell them you don’t like it, then I have some top tips from my egg-laden childhood! In the moment when they leave the room, take the opportunity to yeet it into your neighbour’s garden, ensuring you swear your egg-loving siblings to secrecy. If you have a plant in the kitchen, burying small amounts of egg in the soil is a sure-fire way to get rid of it, as well as acting as a fertiliser! If you are super lucky, one of your siblings will also hate egg, and so you can come up with even more elaborate methods when your parents are beginning to see past your continuous need to use the bathroom every time egg is served. I remember my brother and I once put our egg into each other’s hoods at dinner. A classic distraction tactic can also be used, for example, enquiring about whether there is a fox in the garden, using your parent’s momentary glance outside the door to wrap egg in a napkin and put it in the under-table drawer to be disposed of later.

Visitors:

Holidays often bring people to the house, some of them welcome, some of them obligatory. I want it to be known that I enjoy some people in my life visiting, not least because many of them read this. The thing is, sometimes having people round is tiring and being at someone else’s house can be exhausting. The main issues I find with unwanted guests are:

  • They can be incredibly boring
  • They might overstay their welcome
  • There is more noise and human interaction
  • You are not used to how they speak and interact with you

Let’s go through these.

If your guests are boring, might I suggest preparing some conversation topics in advance. I like to do this whenever I am going to be around another person, but for holiday visitors it is especially important. While I would avoid politics and other controversial topics, what you choose to say is up to you. These conversation starters could range from “How was your journey?” and “So, when did you put up your decorations?” right through to “I was thinking of getting a neck tattoo of you. Thoughts?”

The issue of guests overstaying their welcome is always a difficult one. While you don’t want to seem rude and ask them to leave, you also want them out of your house. I suggest asking if they have a particular train they need to catch, but in the case of them walking or driving, other techniques must be employed. If you start tidying up around them, that usually works in getting them to realise you want them gone. I personally have no issue just saying “sorry, can you go now, I’m getting tired,” but my Mum wouldn’t let me do that. It was she who taught me the tidying up method, although being autistic and thus not picking up social clues very well, I would vastly prefer someone just ask me to leave. If, however, you are worried about someone taking offense, and despite you hoovering around them is insistent on staying, the other option is to start bringing them their coats and bags and saying they should let themselves out because you are going to bed. Admittedly, the threat of bedtime is less effective at 2pm, but no one wants to be left in a house while the host is asleep upstairs. If they do, you should probably evaluate your friendship with them.

Masking can be very tiring, and the more people around, the more difficult it becomes. When visitors are in your home, it can feel very odd, as though they are invading the space you created to help you deal with everyone else, even if you invited them. People tend to make noise, move around, touch your things, and perform other irritating habits. The best advice I can offer is to make sure you are well rested before they arrive. If you are already close to your figurative limit, the slightest inconvenience can cause you to “snap”. Deciding beforehand where you want them to be (e.g., kitchen or living room), can also help as it allows you to control what they are surrounded by. If you dislike people touching your collection of dinosaur figurines, moving them out of the room will keep them “safe”. Likewise, if you are a guest, don’t wander off into different parts of the house or flat by yourself. If they are coming round, the likelihood is that your guests know you are autistic. Therefore, if you need to leave the room at any point, they should be understanding. If they are not understanding, they need to get over themselves and can spend their time elsewhere. It is your space and so they are the ones who are privileged to be there. If you are non-autistic and are having an autistic person over, be mindful that this is a new place that they may not be very comfortable in. I was extremely taken aback and pleased when I was told that I was welcome to take a break in a specified room should I need it when visiting some friends. This wasn’t difficult for them, but it meant a lot to me because they had considered ways to make me feel more comfortable. They also checked the volume of the background music with me and gestured to a place where I could sit rather than me just standing until I knew where was okay. Those acts made me feel very welcomed and I had a very lovely evening.

The last point is not being used to how people act. I find this commonly with those that I only see once or twice a year. This is often extended family, but it could also be friends. The easiest thing I have found is to begin talking to someone I am comfortable with. I might stay close to my siblings at a family event or talk to one of my aunts who I get along with very well. This helps to ease me into the occasion and often, the conversation will open up to a wider group after a while, allowing you to become accustomed to people’s mannerisms again, as well as being able to listen rather than actively join in, thus taking the pressure off slightly. One of my uncles is extremely sarcastic by nature and so I always felt slightly uncomfortable talking to him because I didn’t know if he was being serious or not. I spoke to my mum about this, who spoke with his wife, who spoke with him and he has since been much more direct when talking to me, making it much easier for me to have a conversation with him.

The other issue that might come up, specifically with family members, is differing opinions. As much as possible, trying to stay away from politics is a good idea but sometimes a topic comes up that divides opinion. While you can choose your friends —and so are likely to only have those whose opinions you roughly align with— family is a different matter. Thankfully, this has not been a particularly large issue for me, but I have thought about what I would do should it come up. While I do believe that conversations need to be had about topics such as racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism etc. I do not necessarily think that a family Christmas party is the place to have them. Many people spout the “people can have different opinions, doesn’t mean you should dislike them” line, and I think that is only partly true. That line works when the opinions are as non-important as jam preferences. When it comes to fundamental human rights, I think it is no longer applicable. That being said, one conversation at a family event, in front of other people, is so unlikely to change their mind that I would say it is not worth the effort. I would not say anything at all and instead change the topic, making a mental note to take them off the birthday card list.

I think this is my longest post to date, so congratulations if you got this far! I hope some of these things help in the lead up to anything you may choose to celebrate. I would absolutely love it if you would comment your thoughts or like the post or share. Apparently, that is a helpful thing for you to do and I should be trying to get more reader interaction? Anyhow, I hope you have a nice December and there should be at least one more post before the new year!

Sarah

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