Likely challenges on Valentine's Day for people with autism
Updated: Nov 25
Valentine's Day can mean many challenges for people on the spectrum. Maybe with social isolation, it can feel like an especially lonely day with many couples around. Perhaps your child can misinterpret holiday-related phrases. HFA Today explores what these challenges may be.
For children and adults in their lives:
According to Woodburn Pediatric Clinic, Valentine's Day can especially trigger obsessive behaviours in autistic children, such as organizing Valentine cards in a particular way.
Given special interests and the need for routine and knowing myself as a child, even though I don't remember if I actually did this or not, I would have strictly wanted to give Valentine to my best friends in the class first. Not only would allowing this behaviour trigger autism even more but if other children found out, they would likely feel hurt about someone giving Valentine to friends first. If I did display this behaviour, I probably got over it quickly. From grades three to five (The whole Valentine card thing stopped when I was in grade six), I definitely didn't behave like that, at least not on Valentine's Day.
As a teacher, educational assistant, or parent, how do I handle these types of behaviours? Use methods such as alphabetical order, boy-girl-boy-girl, people at your table first, or a pattern that an autistic child wouldn't fixate on to help them learn. Or, simply remind them that Valentine's Day is everyone's holiday and they all deserve love. If the behaviour involves sorting Valentines or candies a certain way, politely tell them not to sort.
They aren't crushing on you.
Since autistic people can take phrases literally, Valentine's Day can especially be a challenge. For example, these children can interpret expressions such as "Be mine!", "Be my Valentine!", "You choose me!", or "XOXO!" as "I want to be your boyfriend/girlfriend!". This situation can happen in two ways:
If the person has a crush on someone in class, they may get extra excited to receive such a card from their crush.
If the person is embarrassed at the idea of someone like-liking them, they might complain or even act out.
When I was in school, I figured this out rather quickly. By the time I was in the older grades, it did seem weird to read such phrases from classmates. Still, I understood.
Let the child know that Valentine's Day love or friendship love is not the same as "dating love" if they act on these thoughts. If they don't, then they may eventually learn about this themselves.
Somebody didn't give you a Valentine.
Unfortunately, because of social skills issues, bullying and exclusion are common among school children on the spectrum. There might be people in the class who don't give a card to their autistic classmates because they don't like them. These situations happen more than one thinks. I can't tell you how many times I've read news stories about an autistic child being the only one not invited to a party or that nobody showed up to their party. It's heartbreaking.
If teachers and parents know that such a situation has happened, they should not get the autistic child involved unless they want an apology. Contact the other child's parents about them not giving the autistic child a card. According to Verywellfamily, giving everyone cards is the appropriate thing to do.
Overwhelmed by noise and parties
As people on the spectrum can feel overwhelmed by noise, Valentine's Day parties can add stress. This symptom can especially be true if the classroom is large or noisy outside of parties.
If you're a teacher or educational assistant, you can watch for the child's signs of stress. If the person appears stressed or he/she says they are stressed, allow them to take a washroom or drink break, or perhaps even a long walk around the school as long as there is proper supervision. I would do this frequently at school when I was overwhelmed.
For adults on the spectrum:
Because autistic people struggle with social skills and communication, many are single. According to a 2013 study by Toronto's Redpath Centre, only 32.1 per cent of autistic people were in a relationship and only nine per cent were married at the time.
As people on the spectrum can feel socially isolated, Valentine's Day can be an especially lonely time. Seeing couples celebrate each other when single is not always an easy chore. I've gotten better at dealing with these feelings over the years.
Things I suggest you do if you struggle with this would be to take a quick break from social media, scroll past any social media posts, or temporarily mute posts from people you know are in relationships. If in real life, avoid restaurants, downtown streets, or other places where you may see happy couples. With work, since it's a professional environment, I wouldn't worry too much about romantic things happening.
You're not single but struggle to know what your partner wants.
According to Angelsense, autistic people in relationships may struggle to understand when to initiate hugs, kisses, or to say I love you at the right times. If you get a subtle hint from your partner that they do not like fancy restaurants, you might not always pick up on it. You might plan to take them to a fancy restaurant, unaware that this is not what they want.
If you are dating an autistic person, be direct and consistent with them. Tell them what you want or don't want. This way, you can avoid big misunderstandings on your special day.
Use Valentine's Day to celebrate others.
Since Valentine's Day is not my favourite holiday, every year on social media, I'll make a post saying that I celebrate Valentine's Day by being thankful for all of the good connections I have.
Think of your family, friends and other people who have positively influenced your life. Recognize them on this day. Message a friend on social media to tell them that they are a good friend. Such statements can make a difference in what can be a lonely day for many.
Treat it like a normal day.
Since Valentine's Day hasn't been as big as Christmas, Halloween, or Easter for me, it feels like a relatively normal day.
If you aren't fond of the holiday, simply distract yourself with things you do on a typical day. Do you play an instrument or cook? Do those things.
No matter what, it's only one day a year.
Whether you like Valentine's Day or not, remember it is only one day a year. Make the most of the day by doing things you enjoy.