Ask a Psychologist: Autism and Wedding Planning

Planning a wedding, as an autistic person

Q: Dear APW,

I’m getting married in just under a year. Planning has been going fantastically so far, but there are some tricky things that I am trying to work out, because I am autistic. I was only recently diagnosed, and the past year has been a year of answers and explanations, and finding out reasons why my brain works this way. Finding out why things that have always been so painful are that way. I’ve been finding ways to work around solutions, and realizing that my differences are okay.

But a lot of the challenges I have are things that complicate wedding planning. I don’t do well in loud crowded places. I get overloaded quickly. Sometimes I can’t talk. I express my emotions in nontypical ways. (I flap my hands when I am happy. I rock when I am stressed.) I have difficulty with loud noises. I generally don’t make eye contact. I have a small pool of people who I enjoy making physical contact with. I don’t do well with change. I don’t do well with new things. And googling “autistic wedding planning,” because google is the first place to find resources, only tells you how to handle taking your children with autism to a wedding, not how to plan a wedding if you are autistic.

The challenge here is to plan an autistic-friendly, big, Catholic wedding. At the end of the day, I want to be married. I want to enjoy my wedding without being overwhelmed by the people, the noise, the change. This would be easier if I could have a very small wedding, but I also have a large family who I love very much and want all to be there. Of course, he also has a large family that he cares about a lot. I want to spend my wedding day with my giant family and a few close friends. That is the most important part to me. There’s so few occasions where everyone can get together, that I want everyone.

The people are the most important part, but the people are probably also going to be the most difficult aspect. The few things that we’ve planned have taken this into consideration. When picking a venue, we made sure it was one that had small quiet rooms, for hiding. I picked it in a residential neighborhood, because that way there is a sound limit, to help keep it quiet.

Weddings are changes and transitions. They are out of my ordinary, day-to-day routine. Those are things that make me panic. I have never been married—and have only been to a few weddings, because we are the first few of our friends to get married, so it is something new for me. It’s a Catholic wedding, so at least the ceremony part should be very structured. Catholic Mass with specific guidelines and structures. That structure has been there since before I was born and will be there after. I find the tradition and structure reassuring. I’ll be getting married the same way my parents were and his parents were and their parents were, so it isn’t really something new.

There’s definitely a lot of things we haven’t worked out yet. We started this planning early and we will have time to address these issues as they come up, but there’s a lot of ways things can go wrong. I can’t plan for everything, but what can I do to minimize any problems that show up?

Anon

A: Dear Anon,

In planning a wedding, we all learn a lot about our strengths, as well as our areas of vulnerability. You have significant strengths. First, you have terrific self-awareness, including a strong sense of your own needs and how to anticipate what they’ll be in the future. A lot of couples put their own needs on the back burner during wedding planning, and it’s great that you’ve already realized that that won’t work. There are aspects of the wedding about which you’re concerned, which makes total sense, given your experience and fairly recent diagnosis. You’re already thinking preventatively of solutions to possible problems, and you have an awesome partner who is doing the same.

People with Autism Spectrum Disorder experience symptoms on a very wide continuum, but most people experience differences in social interaction and communication, as well as sensitivity to environmental and sensory stimuli, including sound, light, and certain tastes, smells, or textures, and changes in routine. Some people with autism also experience repetitive or restricted behaviors or interests, or cognitive, language, or learning differences. An important thing to remember about autism is that it is a spectrum disorder, meaning that people experience autism in different ways. So, it’s key for people with autism and their families to understand individual strengths and differences, and to work with skilled therapists to improve coping skills and communication.

Even if you were only recently diagnosed with autism and are now seeing things within this framework, you’ve known yourself for a long time. Your family and friends also know you and will support you, and they may already have a sense of what you need during your wedding. You’ve already anticipated a lot of these things in choosing your venue and having people help out. This is a great start.

I will advocate here the importance of designating a friend or family member as a Wedding Stage Manager, as outlined by Meg in her book (more details in this post), and possibly also having a professional Day-Of Coordinator there to run things. Choose someone who Gets You (and Gets It) to orchestrate things to go the way you’d like them to go. This person could be a venue staff member or another wedding industry professional. You might even consider hiring, or consulting with, an occupational therapist (OT). OTs troubleshoot around sensory, physical, or cognitive differences, and their work often involves adapting environments to accommodate special sensory needs. A Stage Manager or Day-Of Coordinator’s job is to keep your needs in mind and Makes Things Happen (e.g., coordinating the timing of parts the day with vendors or the caterer, whisking you away if you need it, making sure that you’re eating and drinking, etc.) according to what’s important to you.

In August, I responded to a bride-to-be’s question about how to manage her sibling’s substance abuse problem on her wedding day. I talked about creating a Safety Plan with some ideas for how to proceed if certain scenarios play out. Similarly, you, your fiancé, friends, and family can set formal parameters in advance to plan for potentially challenging situations on the wedding day. You can examine possible scenarios ahead of time, and create different narratives for how things might proceed in ways that make you comfortable, keeping in mind who/what often helps to ground you. Brainstorm ideas, write them out on paper, come up with different solutions, and see how they feel. If they’re not quite right, you can re-work them. This process should help you to gain a sense of agency over things like potential logistical challenges, changes in routine, or environmental or interpersonal situations that you’d otherwise predict to cause stress. I’d also recommend working with a supportive psychotherapist or counselor during this time, to build on your strengths, plan ahead, and reduce anxiety.

Naturally weaving in opportunities for alone time, quiet, and less stimulation throughout the wedding day will be important. Discussing with your venue things like timing (i.e., to reduce the possibility of an unexpected change in routine), lighting, seating, noise level, music/no music, and dancing/no dancing, should help to ease the flow of the day and organize guests’ activities. Your wedding may involve a lot of people, but it does not need to be overwhelming. In the Jewish tradition, the period of yichud allows the newlyweds to steal away immediately after the ceremony for some time alone in a private room. (Also recommended during this time: drinking water and eating something!) In fact, this intimate period is considered so important and sacred, that the couple traditionally chooses two people to guard the door of the room to ensure that no one interrupts the couple’s privacy. Although you’re having a Catholic wedding, you could consider implementing something similar after the ceremony, or as often as needed throughout the celebration. Just like the Jewish tradition provides guards for the couple’s privacy, you need to find people to similarly guard your space and mental well-being as needed.

Importantly, I’d like to point out that discomfort with big parties, noise, and change of routine is not uncommon for many couples. There are a lot of things about weddings that people don’t like and that cause undue stress. As you mentioned, your journey has been about realizing that, indeed, your differences are okay. APW has a fabulous toolkit to help people create the wedding they want, however many traditional or alternative aspects they’d like to include. For you, the tradition, significance, and structure of the Catholic wedding ceremony, and the presence of family and friends, will provide meaning and guidance throughout the day. So, try to keep those aspects in mind throughout the planning and celebration itself, and try not to get too swept away by what a wedding “should” be. Your family and friends will be so thrilled to celebrate you and your fiancé in whatever way you choose—remember that. Use what’s important to you to inform decisions about the structure and environment of the day. If tradition is helpful, include it; if it’s not, don’t. Make sure to enlist a Wedding Stage Manager and other people to lend a hand. Keep your needs in mind. They, and you, are important. And have an incredible, meaningful wedding.

More information on support and resources for people with autism can be found at the Autistic Self Advocacy Network.

The information provided in Ask a Psychologist is intended by Dr. Brofman and APW to serve as general advice and guidance for all readers. The advice herein does not constitute a clinical recommendation or relationship, and Dr. Brofman and quoted mental health professionals do not take clinical responsibility for this information. Ask a Psychologist does not take the place of a confidential clinical consultation with a trained mental health professional. 

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