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As I stared into space at Gate 34 waiting for my plane to board, my phone buzzed. Expecting another in an endless stream of Groupon offers, I opened my inbox ready to delete it. The email was anything but a discount coupon.

My client was in distress. He was exercising but still gaining weight. He was trying to make plans with friends but getting no responses. He said he felt helpless, and that the feeling was heightened by the approach of the holidays.

As I polled my neurodiverse friends, I saw that my client was not alone. In fact, I learned that the holidays are even more nerve-racking for my neurodiverse friends than for most neurotypicals. Travel is not just a hassle, it is over stimulating. Family members are not just difficult, they can be ignorant and hostile. Even mundane things can be problematic. As Alexandrea Van Der Tuin, an autism advocate, points out, "People with ASD can react negatively to food, music, perfume, and even the spike heels we feel forced to wear."


And then there is the stress of holiday parties.

If you have autism, chances are you struggle with developing social relationships. Chances are that you are single at holiday time. While you may feel lonely year round, that feeling is worse when you open a holiday party invitation that encourages you to bring a date.

What should you do when that invitation comes? Let me offer you five suggestions:

Embrace Holiday Parties As an Opportunity
There is nothing wrong with going to a holiday party alone as long as you approach it with the right mindset. In fact, with the right mindset, you can actually improve other people's experience.

When arriving at the party, seek out people with whom you are comfortable. If it is an office party, approach the person you know best at the office. If it is a family gathering, chat with the person you get along with best. Use the time to learn something new about him or her. (My favorite line is, "We've known each other for a while. What is something interesting that I may not know about you?”)

Ready to take it to the next level? Use this little social trick — Focus on chatting with the date of the person you already know. Why?

First, the date doesn't know many people at the party either. He or she probably feels awkward and ignored. He or she probably came to the party as a courtesy to your colleague or family member. You can make him or her feel comfortable by showing interest and starting a conversation.

Second, your colleague or family member feels pressure to introduce his or her date to the other party goers. Inevitably, those introductions lead to no conversation. By engaging your office buddy or family member's date in conversation, you are actually doing a favor for your office buddy or family member. 

Third, you get to practice your conversation skills on a stranger and learn about someone new. It may even expand your Love Network, which is your circle of friends who can help you find potential partners.

Don't feel pressured to have an endless conversation or jump from person-to-person. "Give yourself permission to take a brief break," says Dr. Rebecca Sachs, Clinical Psychologist at The Midtown Center for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy in New York City. "Take a quick walk, go to the bathroom, write a text to a loved one or take 10 deep breaths when you start feeling overwhelmed."

Bring a Friend Instead of a Date
Believe it or not, you may know people who want to go to the party you are trying to avoid.

Do you have a friend who lives too far away from his or her family? He or she may be thrilled to celebrate with yours.
Do you have a friend who wants to network with your officemates? A holiday party is a great time to for your friend to network with people — especially bosses — who are ordinarily busy with other things. 

When choosing a friend to bring to a party, aim for one who will either include you in his conversations with others or keep you company throughout the night. Avoid bringing a friend who will walk in with you and then ditch you.

Get In, Say Hi, Get Out
Have you heard of the "Irish goodbye?" Neither had I until my Irish friend told me about it. It means leaving a party quietly, without anyone noticing.

Sometimes going to a party is mandatory. Your boss expects you to be there or your family expects you to be there. In that case, do the bare minimum — get dressed for the occasion, walk into the party, say hello to all the people who expect to see your face, and then you disappear without a sound.

While the "Irish goodbye" may be rude for a small dinner party, there are no expectations of you at large parties. "Show your face" at the party and then treat yourself to fun elsewhere.

Skip the Party and Focus on Yourself
"Own your feelings of loneliness and accept them," says Sharon Valencia, program associate of Ladies on the Spectrum Connection. "Once you have accepted the fact that you are lonely, go out there and be active. Go out for a jog, work on an art project, reorganize your closet. Take advantage of your time alone to be productive on projects that are meaningful to you." 

That is exactly what many of my neurodiverse friends do. Even those who have come to terms with their loneliness skip holiday parties altogether. There’s no shame in focusing on you.

Skip the Party and Focus on Others
One of the best ways to feel good about yourself around the holidays is to help others who are less fortunate. There are a million ways to do that, including volunteering at a food bank, visiting the homebound, or even visiting your friends who are also lonely at this time of year.

If you're having trouble figuring out what volunteer opportunities are open to you, here are some suggestions:
•    Google "volunteer opportunities in [insert your location]"
•    Ask the director of any organization of which you are a member
•    Ask your therapist or mental health professional
•    Ask the clergy at your house of worship

The truth is that you can't avoid the holidays, the inevitable holiday parties, and the feelings associated with them. But you can embrace those feelings and channel them toward more productive ends.

How do you plan to embrace and channel your feelings around the holidays? Share your thoughts in the comments, below.

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Daniel Dern, an Assistant Manager in our Human Resources Dept., has run nine marathons and provides some wisdom for members and perspective members of our Run for YAI team preparing for this year’s ING New York City Marathon. If you're interested in running in this year's marathon, you still have time! Join our Run for YAI team today.

  • Think of a marathon as three races … two 10-milers and a 6.2 mile race. It's overwhelming to think of the whole 26.2 mile course. This way you have milestones, and you can say to yourself at 10 miles "OK, the first race is over." And then again after 20 miles. Then your last race of 6.2 miles is psychologically shorter. Just don't forget to pace yourself throughout the three races.
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  • When I was 19 I ran the Long Island Marathon in 2 hours and 46 minutes, finishing in 21st place. It was first my marathon and I didn’t have a clue on how to attack the distance. I ran with no watch and didn't even pay attention to splits. I ran on all guts. I collapsed at the finish and was carried away.
  • Training is like a bell curve. Steadily build on your long runs. Follow a bell curve with mileage. Remember that rest is important, especially during those last few weeks of training.
  • To be successful in a marathon, you have to become obsessed with it. Everything revolves around the training -- when to eat, when to run, when to rest. It's always in the back of your mind.

  • The toughest part of any marathon comes between miles 16 and 22. In each of the marathons I've run, around the 22-mile mark I've said to myself, "Even if I have to crawl in, I'm finishing this thing."
  • Get ready to do nothing but change in and out of your running clothes. Buy plenty of laundry detergent.

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As the social media intern, I am always wanting to explore what YAI has to offer. After all, how can you write and advocate for programs and people if you don't have exposure to them yourself? 

Recently, I had the opportunity to sit in on YAI’s Manhattan Day Services program at 34th Street.

The program embodies YAI's mission of seeing beyond disability in every way. Every day, Monday through Friday, the program's participants visit volunteer sites throughout New York's five boroughs. One day they're packaging food to alleviate hunger through God's Love charity; the next they're walking dogs around Brooklyn through BARC, a homeless shelter for cats and dogs in Brooklyn.

The group that I was able to tag along with went to the Anti-Violence Project (AVP), a nonprofit organization, a few blocks away, whose mission is to teach safe-sex practices and prevent violence against the LGBT community.
Group members labeled folders used to file cases and folded pamphlets on anti-violence.

“Look at all I've done. Look at how much we've done,” said Kate, one of the participants, filled with pride as she looked at a pile of neatly folded pamphlets.

Seeing the guys accomplish their tasks with such determination and such concern over whether they were doing the job right was really inspiring.

“It's all about finding tasks that fit all different skill levels,” said Nicole Kapadia, staff member. “Sometimes you have to get creative, but what is great about this site in particular is there are many tasks that fit all different levels.”

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