While you may see Thanksgiving as a time of celebration and delicious food with loved ones, your child with autism likely sees Thanksgiving differently. Not only is their regular daily routine messed up, but the day can be a recipe for sensory overload, making the holiday not very autism-friendly.
But that doesn’t mean you and your child with autism can’t have a happy Thanksgiving. It simply takes a little more preparation on your part.
We’ve put together six helpful Thanksgiving tips for ensuring you, your family, and your child with autism can have an enjoyable and happy Thanksgiving. And to make these tips easy to remember, we’ve ordered them to spell the word “THANKS.”
Remember the Acronym T.H.A.N.K.S for an Autism-Friendly Thanksgiving
Tell your child what they can expect on Thanksgiving day. Hosting the holiday celebration at your house may make your child more comfortable, but it’s also a lot of work for you. Either way, whether you are hosting or traveling, prepare your child for who they’ll see, what activities will be happening, and what kind of food they’ll see on the table. Perhaps even create a Happy Thanksgiving social story for your child to reference.
If you think your child is up to it, give them things to do to help. This could include tasks like helping in small ways in the kitchen, decorating, setting the table, or even answering the door and welcoming guests.
Of course, it’s a good idea to plan out what your child can help you with in advance and make it part of your preparation for the big day. If you’re creating a social story, make sure you include their designated task on the big day.
This is one of the most crucial Thanksgiving tips to ensure a peaceful mealtime. If you are traveling for Thanksgiving, bring along foods you know your child enjoys. If you’re hosting the celebration, have that meal ready to go once it’s time to sit down at the table.
While the typical Thanksgiving feast includes turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, and cranberry sauce, among many other possibilities, an autism-friendly menu will likely look very different.
If your son or daughter only eats nuggets and fries, then that’s an autism Thanksgiving dinner! There’s no reason to expect your child to eat differently on a big holiday and risk a meltdown at the table. It’s their celebration too! Let them eat a piece of toast and orange juice if that’s their go-to. Whatever it is, letting them eat what they like on the big day dramatically increases your chances of having a Happy Thanksgiving.
It’s also essential to make sure your child has access to a safe space to take breaks. If you’re at home, this is a little easier. But if you’re traveling, make sure your host can designate a space for them.
Notify your guests about what they can expect at your autism-friendly Thanksgiving celebration. This is especially true for friends and family members who don’t see your child very often.
Make sure they know how to interact with your child and things they should try to do and not do to prevent overwhelm. Also, don’t be afraid to adjust your guests’ expectations about what they can expect from your child at mealtime. Let them know your son or daughter may not be eating anything prepared since children with autism are quite often picky eaters. (And don’t forget the other kids in attendance, they may not think it’s fair your child doesn’t have to eat their veggies when they do!)
In addition, it’s a good idea to let your guests know, or the other guests at your host’s home know, that your child’s safe space is just that: their safe space. Notify your guests of where it is and the purpose it serves.
5. Keep it fun
There’s no reason your child with autism’s Thanksgiving has to be boring for them! Make sure you include some fun activities for your child and other guests to participate in. This could be a family game, a Thanksgiving skit, watching a cartoon about Thanksgiving, or a family tradition. (Again, make sure you prepare your child for these activities ahead of time.)
If you are traveling for Thanksgiving, make sure you bring along some of your child’s favorite calming toys and activities. These could be fidget toys, a tablet with games, a weighted lap pad, or whatever will make your child happy, comfortable, and able to have fun in the Thanksgiving festivities.
This is a great Thanksgiving tip for families of children with autism. As you probably already know, children with ASD don’t like changes in routine. They prefer patterns and schedules so they don’t become overwhelmed with the unexpected. While you can’t account for unforeseen events, noises, and people, do your best to create a schedule for your child.
Along with the social story you create, your child’s autism-friendly Thanksgiving schedule can include visuals next to the scheduled events and activities. Or, you can always mesh the two together and put them in a binder or on a clipboard for your child to carry with them throughout the day.
Remember: An Autism-Friendly Thanksgiving Doesn’t Have to Be Picture Perfect
Holidays can be stressful. Whether you are hosting Thanksgiving dinner or traveling, if you have a child with autism, your stress level could be even higher if you don’t cut yourself some slack. Just remember, Thanksgiving is not about having the perfect meal with no hiccups in your child’s behavior. Instead, it’s about being thankful for your blessings, big and small.
Don’t worry about cooking every little thing. Consider ordering out, having the meal catered, or hosting a potluck-style Thanksgiving. Whatever your happy thanksgiving looks like, don’t be too hard on yourself or your child.
All you have to do is prepare your child and your guests as best you can, enjoy your time together, relax, and go easy on yourself. And then you’ll have a happy thanksgiving!
And if you need additional help lowering your daily stress by helping your child learn the skills they need to communicate with you and others, our ABA Therapy program can help!