December 16, 2013

Surviving The Holiday Office Party ASD-Style

I recently wrote about coming out Autistic at work and an update on that, but unlike a regular work day, an office party can throw a whole lot of unexpected at you.

I'd say this party was the best one for me yet. Because of my recent diagnosis and better understanding of myself, I was better prepared. Essentially, what official diagnosis did for me was give me permission to take better care of myself. It's not that I didn't know what to do before, it's that I didn't listen to myself and thought I should just keep forcing myself to do and be things I am not so great at. I thought I was being weak or stupid. I thought if I just kept pushing, eventually I would change and everything would be "normal." Fighting with myself got me no where. I finally stopped fighting.

Did I still make social blunders? Yes! Do I care any more? No. (Unless I hurt someone, then I would apologize. But if I just look silly and socially inept, I no longer care)

So here's how I prepared for the party:

As soon as the party date, place and time were announced, I added it to my Google Calender. Then I printed out the directions on how to get there from Google Maps. I already knew what dress I would wear (I bought it in the fall) and which shoes. This was about 3 weeks in advance.

My department also decided to hold a gift exchange on the same day as the party, so I had to plan to go out and buy a gift. I went out and got it on the weekend about 2 weeks before.

The week of the party, I made sure to get enough sleep and eat well leading up to the day, especially the night before. Not enough sleep before the party would have lowered my coping skills.
Eating well, for me, also means not doing anything else new or different. No eating out (because there can be surprises!) or doing anything particularly novel. Too many different experiences in one week lower coping skills.

The night of the party, I go home after work first, even though it would be easy to go straight to the venue. Going home first allows me to recalibrate. I can see my hubby and kid, eat familiar foods, and get ready in a familiar environment. Stress of the unknown would be building by now. I eat before parties because I never know if there will be something I can eat where I'm going or if it would be available on time. Being hungry lowers coping mechanisms as well.

I also do not usually drive people to the venue. Even though I think it would be fun to get ready with someone, it would be too much stress to either wait for someone else who is running late or have them waiting for me. I've done it before and I don't like the feeling.
This aspect can be difficult socially because I don't drink alcohol and I would be the perfect designated driver. However, I really can't stand being around drunk people and wouldn't want them in my car. So while it would make complete economic, social (maybe even moral) and environmental sense for me to drive other people, for the sake of my own sanity, I really can't. This is just one of my limits.

I don't usually wear make up, but I do for special occasions like parties, and it takes me awhile to apply make up and also get used to the feeling of it on my face. Some of my stims involve touching my face and not being able to do it takes away another coping mechanism.

Getting out the door can be challenging. Now back in the comfort of home, it's hard to leave it again, especially knowing the night will be loud and filled with the unknown.

Navigating to a new place can add to the stress, but I've gotten a lot better at this over time.

Whew, I'm tired already just writing about it!

So I've made it to the venue. Now it's time to work on the social part. As a woman in an IT company, I expect to get stared at, especially in a dress. It's not bad, I do not mind attention, but it's more than I'm used to. Here we follow the French tradition of the two cheek kiss. I can't understand why at parties, we are supposed to greet our co-workers, who we've just been with a mere few hours ago, with a kiss or handshake just because we're at a party. But that's what we do and I can be awkward about it. Some people shake hands at the same time. Some people hug. I never really know. It's amazing we all don't just bash heads.

My work always offers a buffet, which is good and bad. Bad because I dislike food that has been touched by a lot of people. Good because I can take as much "safe" food as I like. There was a whole seafood section this year, which I can't eat at since I'm allergic to shellfish. There was sushi amongst all that, which I like but wouldn't go near in case of cross-contamination. So that option was gone.
I usually stick to vegetarian options when eating out, which always leads to questions about what I'm eating or not eating. Invariably, I am offered wine or some alcohol and I have to keep saying, "no." I'm just glad I'm not an alcoholic because it's annoying to always say no and the questions that go along with it. If we're going to use the spoon theory to apply to this, I'd say these questions make me lose a few spoons.

I'm not a fan of small talk, but I also don't like talking about work when not at work. I understand this makes it difficult to be social. At the same time, I have absolutely no problem sitting in silence and just looking at my surroundings, but other people, evidently, have an issue with this and will go to great lengths to avoid it.

This year there was a show on stage after eating that involved four topless men banging on drums. It was quite loud. Too loud for me at least. I had to cover my ears. I did that for a bit but then got tired of covering my ears. Despite me liking drums and topless men who weren't hard on the eyes, I could not enjoy the show, so I walked away from the stage. Being the only person walking away in the middle of a show with her fingers in her ears attracts attention, unfortunately - I got some stares, but I felt better removing myself from the situation, rather than standing there and pretending to enjoy something I wasn't, thus losing more spoons.

Then it was dance time. I like dancing and know how to dance, but I refuse to dance to music I don't like. This makes me a bad dance partner because depending on the DJ, I will walk on and off the dance floor. This is not a problem for men usually. It's a problem when dancing in those little circles of women, who need people with them in order to dance. As I've gotten older, I no longer care if someone is dancing with me or not. In my case, at my company which is mostly filled with IT guys, one will usually appear quickly and start dancing with or nearby.

As the night wears on, people start to become more and more intoxicated and I become more and more annoyed by their presence. They are no longer able to hold a conversation of any value. They invade personal space even more than normal. They act obnoxious, and being an emetophobe, I also fear them being sick. I try to make my exit before people get too annoying.

I also have to make calculations based on how tired I am and if I can drive myself home safely. I also time leaving based on what demands I will have the next day or over the weekend. I calculate how much sleep I can get based on what time my son usually gets up. He's pretty predictable, but you never know. Kids seem to have a tendency to get up earlier after you've gone to bed really late.

I left just after 2am, so I got 4 hours sleep last night. I was thinking of napping today while the Little Man was, but decided to write this draft instead. I would never have dreamed of such a thing before (would have slept in until I could catch up on sleep) but having a kid has trained me to know I can manage on less sleep, at least in the short term. I will go to bed earlier tonight and tomorrow to compensate.

I hope you can gain an appreciation for the amount of planning that goes into what most people take to be a simple and fun evening out with friends.