You have been invited to a party! Yay! Now what?
Speaking from experience, parties can be very tricky for people with autism. I am an adult with autism, and I teach and coach young adults with autism. I’ve also taken a lot of acting and writing classes, which often require homework that consists of observing people. I would like to share what I have observed from parties so I can help others who struggle like me! People with autism can have certain difficulties in large group settings. So, if you or your child, friend, loved one, student, or client are feeling anxiety about going to an upcoming holiday party, here are some thoughts and suggestions. Perhaps they will open a dialogue!
Do your research
What people do at parties: It can be pretty difficult to navigate the social aspects of a party. There are a lot of variations in conversations and behaviors. Some people exchange small talk, while some stand with one or two folks and have prolonged conversations. A few choose to observe and allow others to approach. It is a great feeling to be able to master one of these styles, if not all.
How parties look: It is not a bad idea to watch examples of holiday parties from movie clips. Of course, they take a lot of liberty with reality. Everyone looks a lot more glamorous with all the makeup and flattering lighting, and the conversations are pre-scripted. However, watching movie clips is a safe way to see what patterns emerge.
Strategies for success
Bring a buddy: If you are very nervous, an excellent option is to bring a trusted person with you. Going with a buddy (friend, coworker, or family member) is helpful because you will have someone to lean on. Make sure your person knows of your goals with the socializing. They will have your back if you struggle. You can also opt to meet a buddy at the party. If you arrive before they do, occupy yourself with your phone, the food, admiring the decorations, etc. Extra points if you can converse with people!
Engage the host: The host wants everyone to have a good time, and they need help with the party. Let them know that you struggle a bit at parties, so they understand. The host then might be more open to your offers to help with tasks such as picking up trash, refilling the chips, tidying up, etc. They may or may not let you help, and that is okay. The host may help you meet people. However, watch the host’s behavior. If they are around people you don’t know and do not include you in the conversation, it is time to move away and find something else to do.
Enjoy non-adults: Children and pets do not know the social rules of adult conversation but want to participate. You can give them attention and they will appreciate it. However, watch how other adults interact with them so you can copy and not do anything that draws attention. You don’t want to be that adult who is on the floor wrestling with the family dog! Nor do you want to be the only adult who is engaged in building LEGO creations with the children while other adults notice and chuckle. These quirks can be hard to pull off when everyone is trying to blend in. You can stand near other adults, watch, drink your drink, talk to a kid who talks to you first, or pat a dog or cat that comes up to you.
Go to observe: Sometimes watching people is enough entertainment. People at parties don’t tend to notice if someone is standing to the side and watching. If someone does notice you standing there, it is time to move away and do something else. Make sure you engage with things around the party area. You can admire the decorations, check out things that are on display for people to use (such as a game), and make endless trips to the food and drink area. Keep your mind busy with what you saw and heard, so you can write about it in your journal when you get home. Parties are learning experiences!
Take a break: If you are feeling overwhelmed, a break can help you decompress and put your mind on something else. You can go into a hallway or step outside. When you are ready, you can rejoin the party. People will be stepping away from the group to have private conversations, be alone for a minute, or use their phone. You can pretend to be doing one of these things, so you have a cover when you walk off. The phone is the best excuse since it’s a solo activity that you can use to play games or look on the web but could look to others like you are texting. People will need to use their phones to contact their children, babysitter, spouses, friends, etc. Nobody will know that you are doing something different.
Have an exit plan
When to leave: People who invite others to a party want to feel good about their work and effort. They will give an average range of time for the party, like 6-10 p.m. If you do not want to stay the whole time, a polite amount of time would be about two hours. This time can go quickly if you try many of the options above.
Celebrate: You did it! You managed a holiday party! Give yourself a pat on the back and take a well-deserved break.
Mary Janca works as an educator for individuals with autism and their families. She is on the autism spectrum and uses her own insight to connect with others and guide them to understanding autism in ways that trainings and literature may not reach.
She has been teaching college, high school, and middle school for over 20 years to students of all types of learning styles. She holds a master’s degree in Special Education: Emotional and Behavioral Disorders and has state certifications in multiple high school and middle school subjects. She has also been involved in many agencies as either a helper or receiver, including: ASNC, TEACCH, Vocational Rehabilitation, and specialized school environments. Her goal is to be able to help in as many settings as possible, because there is such a high need for educators.
Mary enjoys the quirks of having autism but appreciates being able to connect with others. She goes through many of the trials that most individuals on the spectrum face, including trouble with taking the perspective of others, following expected behaviors, and managing emotions. She hopes to keep learning about the field of autism, so that she can continue to reach out and help others.Tags: Asperger Syndrome, Asperger's Syndrome, autism, autism anxiety, autism behavior, autism communication, autism nc, autism north carolina, autism social skills, autism society north carolina, autism society of NC, Autism Society of North Carolina, Autism spectrum, Autism Spectrum Disorder, Autism Spectrum Disorders, Developmental disability