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Dealing with the Thanksgiving Blues: 50 Tips for Adults on the Autism Spectrum

Thanksgiving is supposed to be a time of gratitude, happiness, and fellowship with family. During the long Thanksgiving weekend, we are bombarded and inundated with reminders of past holidays. The multitude of reminders can be a trigger for several unresolved issues such as:
  • Anticipating a significant loss
  • Contrast between image of holiday joy and reality of one’s life
  • Contrast between then and now
  • Disappointment about now
  • Past loses
  • Sense of increased isolation and loneliness
  • Unresolved grief

We asked a group of 50 men and women with Asperger’s (high functioning autism) to:  

“Write down one piece of advice you would give to someone on the autism spectrum who is experiencing the “Thanksgiving blues.”

Here’s what they had to say (and if you are a bit depressed as we head into Thanksgiving, hopefully you will find something here to help you through):

1. Create a box of old memories and traditions. Include in this box, new traditions that you want to create.

2. Connect with someone you have lost touch with.

3. Be careful about resentments related to past Thanksgiving holidays. Declare an amnesty with whichever family member or friend you are feeling past resentments. Do not feel it is helpful or intimate to tell your relative every resentment on your laundry list of grievances. Don't let your relative do that to you, either.

4. Remind yourself of the festivity of the occasion.

5. Set limits. Try to maintain a balanced diet, eat and drink in moderation.

6. Set up a gratitude box where each family member puts a piece of paper in it to briefly describe what they are thankful for.

7. Decide upon your priorities and stick to them. Organize your time.

8. Do one good thing for someone outside of the family.

9. Do something for someone else. Take the focus off yourself. It always feels good to help others.

10. Be reasonable with your schedule. Do not overbook yourself into a state of exhaustion--this makes Aspies cranky, irritable, and depressed.

11. Be realistic in your expectations. If you haven't got along with your relatives in 15 years, it's not suddenly going to change.

12. Invent new family traditions. This will help decrease longing for missing loved ones. Instead of being sad that grandma is no longer alive to bake her famous German chocolate cake, begin a tradition of baking German chocolate cupcakes with the kids in the family. This creates a new tradition, but honors grandma as well.

13. In the spirit of good will toward others, get involved with a volunteer activity. Check with local churches, food banks, soup kitchens, and youth organizations to see how they can benefit from your knowledge, skills and abilities.

14. If you find yourself feeling blue just remember: The choice is always yours. The sky is partly sunny, and the glass is half full and revel in our gratitude for our bounty, health, hope, and our courage to face each day with hope and determination.

15. If you drink, do not let Thanksgiving become a reason for over-indulging and hangovers. This will exacerbate your depression and anxiety. Contrary to popular opinion, alcohol is a depressant. People with depression shouldn't drink alcohol.

16. If you are feeling lonely, get out and get around people. Consider volunteering for non-profit organizations or visiting a nursing home as a good way to remember the spirit of Thanksgiving.

17. Don't expect Thanksgiving Day to be just as it was when you were a child. It never is. YOU are not the same as when you were a child, and no one else in the family is either.

18. Give priority to gifts that can't be bought--such as time, support and sharing of memories. (Last year we visited my Grandmother in Maine, which I will be eternally grateful that my husband got a chance to meet her.)

19. Give yourself a break. Create time for yourself to do the things YOU love and need to do for your physical and mental wellness: aerobic exercise, yoga, massage, spiritual practices, taking long fast walks, or any activity that calms you down and gives you a better perspective on what is important in your life.

20. Surround yourself with supportive people.

21. To put things into perspective, try waking up very early and watch a sunrise with a cup of hot cocoa or coffee.

22. Try to recognize (and put a positive spin on) unrealistic expectations.

23. Write down positives about past holidays. Start a new tradition of a journal with just 2 or 3 happy thoughts every year.

24. Go outdoors and get active.

25. Honor lost loved ones. Lost loved ones does not simply refer to those who have passed, but can also refer to those who are deployed with the military, or live in a different state. Send care packages, video tape activities and events, communicate via Skype. To honor those who have passed, have a special meal or a moment of silence or visit a place the person enjoyed.

26. Pace yourself.  Don't take on more activities, make more commitments, or try and do more than you can reasonably handle during Thanksgiving.

27. Pets help me through the holidays. They provide a lifetime of fun, laughs and companionship. Be realistic about the type of pet that’s right for you. Think beyond cats and dogs. Consider hamsters, guinea pigs, and birds.

28. Plan ahead. Set priorities and budgets before Thanksgiving. Plan a calendar for shopping, baking, visiting and other events. Create a "To Do List" if things get overwhelming.

29. Get plenty of rest.

30. Get involved with community service.

31. Volunteer to serve Thanksgiving dinner at a homeless shelter. Work with any number of groups that help underprivileged or hospitalized children at Thanksgiving. There are many, many opportunities for doing community service. No one can be depressed when they are doing community service.

32. Exercise regularly.

33. Enlist your friends’ help before Thanksgiving.

34. Enjoy those who are around you.

35. Enjoy some free activities. Check with local community and recreation centers, churches and shopping malls for a schedule of free activities.

36. Don't use Thanksgiving as a time for family therapy, whether before, during or shortly after.

37. Don't pretend that feelings of loss are not there if you have them. Say a special prayer, reminisce and continue counseling.

38. If the symptoms of hopelessness and depression last for more than two weeks, or if they worsen, you need to see your doc. Anyone having suicidal thoughts should seek immediate care, either through their own doctor or through the nearest hospital emergency department.

39. Keep the spirit of Thanksgiving alive in your home.

40. Isolation increases feelings of loneliness, hopelessness and helplessness. Maintain your regular work and leisure schedule as much as possible. Accept invitations to spend time with family and friends.

41. Invite family members to your home. Be realistic about the type of event you have. If the thought of a huge family dinner is too much to contemplate, then mix things up a bit. Smaller gatherings with fewer expectations reduce the stress of preparing for a large crowd and gives you something to look forward to.

42. If you are feeling grief or loss, acknowledge them. Recognize and accept that both positive and negative feelings may be experienced during Thanksgiving, and that this is normal.

43. Reach out to past friends and family. Send a card with a hand written note, make a phone call, send an e-mail, or search Facebook. Whatever the reason the relationship has grown apart probably isn’t still relevant or meaningful. Put those long-forgotten reasons aside and rekindle that relationship.

44. Make a list of the losses and the positives that have influenced the year. Deal with the feelings that the list evokes.

45. Make pacts with friends to motivate each other.

46. Minimize the number of negative people (even if these are family members!).

47. Plan unstructured, low-cost fun activities: window-shop and look at the holiday decorations, look at people's Christmas lighting on their homes, take a trip to the countryside, etc.--the opportunities are endless.

48. Reach out and make new friends, especially if you will be alone during Thanksgiving.

49.  Remember, no matter what your plans, Thanksgiving does not automatically take away feelings of aloneness, sadness, frustration, anger, and fear.

50. Spend time someone you care about. Accept invitations, give invitations. Don’t allow your negative symptoms to drive your behavior and perhaps drive away friends and family.

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