Friday 1 January 2021


I see that several weeks have passed since I last posted a blog entry. This was due to the pressures of the last few weeks of term. Delivering online tuition is great in many ways, but it is also a lot more work, especially in terms of preparation. Added to which, the covid restrictions have created a lot of logistical and administrative challenges which add to the burden. So, I was working extremely hard in the run-up to Christmas.

Ah, Christmas! A festival dedicated to sensory overload and unstructured social interactions. What’s to like? Well, in some ways I don't mind Christmas. I understand that it’s a time to draw closer to family and to shut out the darkness with some festivity and light. I also get that once upon a time it was a period of feasting in anticipation of lean cold months ahead. But since I am not a Christian, Christmas itself has little meaning for me. I prefer the winter solstice, which signals something meaningful: the days finally beginning to get longer again. So, secretly, I celebrate that instead.

From an autistic perspective, the Christmas period can be very challenging.The notion that suddenly the purpose of existence has changed from "doing things" to "joining in" is a source of anxiety. There are a host of unwritten rules that govern behaviour. There are so many sensory issues and so much disruption in the name of “celebration”. It is impossible to avoid Christmas without being “the grinch” (and nobody wants to be the grinch). It’s a social minefield, and the fear of getting things wrong is amplified at this time of year. 

Consequently, Christmas Eve at 1 a.m. found me unable to sleep and listening to the '1800 Seconds on Autism' podcast. I have followed this since the beginning and have found it consistently excellent. I must have been one of the first listeners to 'The unwritten rules of dinnertime', which was posted as Christmas Eve turned. There was so much relatable content in this episode! 

Christmas day itself is supposedly the big occasion, but it can quickly outstay its welcome. And once the day is over, that is not the end of Christmas! It takes weeks to get into Christmas Day and weeks to get out of it. A kind of stupor takes over, characterised by aimlessness. I have been pushing to get started on my new year diet. I do need to lose weight, but more important is to be able to take control of eating and drinking again, to impose structure on the day, to measure and catalogue my food intake.

The giving and receiving of presents is stressful and complicated. How to react in the right way? Also, making the value of the outgoing gift relate appropriately to the incoming one is apparently very important. But ‘value’ is measured on an undisclosed sliding scale of sentimentality, suitability and financial value. It’s the rock-paper-scissors of Christmas, except that working out which trumps which is more or less impossible. Thankfully, my wife handles most of the present giving, so I am very fortunate.

The sensory aspects of Christmas are similarly very difficult. We finally seem to have managed to eliminate tinsel and shiny dirt (aka ‘glitter’) which has made things easier this year. My problem was that they festooned the walls and decor, interrupting my lines of sight of the corners and angles of rooms, distorting my proprioception. We’ve reduced the lighting to just one tree and a window display for outside which is shut behind curtains. The tree has to be artificial. One year my wife insisted that we have a natural tree. Within 24 hours I could barely breathe and the tree had to be relegated to the garden.

The lack of structure of Christmas Day is bewildering. What time do you get up? Once the presents have been opened, it is socially unacceptable to go upstairs and work, so what happens now? How can I meet expectations when I don’t know what they are? My wife found me standing in the living room with my arms folded, paralysed by indecision. Fortunately, she had bought me a Sherlock Holmes Escape Room puzzle book - one of those non-linear, "solve this to advance to page n" challenges - as a present and then allowed me to immerse myself in that for several hours. It was my escape, both literally and metaphorically.

As Robyn Steward pointed out in the podcast, lunch at 4 pm is not lunch! As always, the meal itself was pretty disappointing after all that preparation. Turkey just is not a very exciting food, and the meal has a certain blandness. Added to which, we have crackers and hats. This year, I’m happy to report the crackers did not bang and contained gin, so they were a great improvement on previous years. 

I’ve been reminded of the time a couple of years ago when we visited family at Christmas. The grandson was naturally very excited and we had the whole lot: TV on, lights and smells everywhere, chit-chat all over the place, a strange bedroom, etc. After a couple of hours of this I became overwhelmed and had to retreat to the bedroom where I was able to watch episodes of Big Bang Theory undisturbed. I’ve said before that I understand the representational problems with BBT, but I still find stability in watching the same episodes over and over again. This Christmas, I’ve started watching it again on Netflix from the beginning.

I’ve also started up chess again, somewhat inspired by ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ (another case of a central character who was most likely autistic but this was never mentioned - rightly so, given the time at which it was set). Twenty years ago, I was a pretty good chess player, playing to a reasonably high level in the local club. I’ve decided to revive my rusty skills, starting from the ground up. It’s good to see how the chess world has evolved, with a strong presence on youtube and via lichess. Chess is a structured world in which one has control.

I am typing this on New Year's Day. Christmas was not so bad this year as previous years, thanks to the coronavirus restrictions. It is a shame that something that has caused such misery to so many people should be the thing that brings me relief, but there it is. Even so, it was impossible to avoid Christmas altogether. Now that the worst is over and there is a pleasing prospect of a return to some kind of structured existence, I will end the holiday period by completing a few projects: some scientific reviews, some composition, and reading some books, including those given me as Christmas presents. 

Happy New Year!