In many ways, Thanksgiving is a perfect storm of challenges for children on the autism spectrum and for their parents. Not only is the holiday built around every possible stressor, but it also provides virtually no outlets for autistic strengths.
In an ideal world, you’d have family and friends who fully understand your child’s needs and are willing and able to connect with and support him/her.
But few of us live in an ideal world. And so…Thanksgiving is tough!
Here’s why Thanksgiving can be so difficult—and what you should do about it:
Kids with autism typically have terrific memories, and they prefer to do things the same way over and over again. Christmas, Hanukah, and other religious holidays are built around traditions that include prayers and songs, special services, and predictable events.
But unlike religious holidays, Thanksgiving has no specific traditions outside of a turkey dinner. And even the turkey is negotiable. One year, Thanksgiving may be held at Aunt Beth’s in Florida, with traditional food and a trip to the beach. The following year, Grandma may decide she’s hosting—but this year she’s going with a Hawaiian luau theme. Different cousins and friends may attend from year to year, bringing with them different traditions, expectations, likes, and dislikes.
How to Handle It:
There’s no way to be absolutely sure what will happen at Thanksgiving, but you can get a very good picture of what to expect by either (1) asking a lot of questions ahead of time, or (2) planning ahead with your host to ensure your child will have what he/she needs. If all else fails, you always have the option of hosting Thanksgiving yourself or staying home.
Once you have the information you need:
- Create a photo book/social story with pictures of relatives and their names, pictures of the house you’ll be visiting, foods you’ll be offered, etc. Include expectations and options. For example, “I will go to Grandma’s house. I will give Grandma and Grand-dad a hug. Then I may watch a video or go outside with my cousins.”
- Read the book with your child multiple times and share the book with your host.
- Practice important moments with your child. For example, if hugs are hard—but important— practice them ahead of time.
- Have a plan for handling changes of plan. What will you do if dinner is planned for 5:00pm, but the turkey isn’t ready yet then?
Complex, Open-Ended Conversation
Kids with autism have a difficult time following and responding to spoken language. They usually do best when words are spoken slowly and when the appropriate response is either obvious (yes/no) or pre-scripted. When conversation is open-ended, the child is at his/her best when the topic is well-known and the situation is familiar.
At many Thanksgiving tables, though, kids with autism will be coping with multiple family members they barely remember, and many who know nothing at all about autism. There’s a good chance that everyone will be talking very loudly on topics ranging from sports, to politics, to Great Aunt Esmeralda’s green bean casserole. In many cases, well-meaning Thanksgiving guests will try to include your child with autism in the conversation—but they will not offer up any direction or support.
How to Handle It:
If your child is verbal and capable of conversation, talk with him/her about some of the subjects that are likely to come up at the Thanksgiving table, especially among relatives who your family does not see often. If your child uses communication tools, such as a keyboard or picture cards, consider creating cards or shortcuts to answer some common questions such as:
- How old are you now?
- What grade are you in?
- What is your favorite subject in school?
- Are you involved with sports or other activities in school?
In most cases, answers to these basic questions will be plenty for adults who don’t have a close connection to your child. Few children—autistic or not—are likely to converse at length about casseroles, family gossip, or politics!
If you find you need to answer for your child, keep your responses as simple and upbeat as possible— e.g., “She’s in sixth grade.” If you start explaining your child’s therapies and special needs, you may find your conversational partner getting glassy-eyed with boredom.
Unfamiliar Sensory “Assaults”
Autism comes with mild, moderate, or severe sensory dysfunctions. Many people with autism are extremely sensitive to sound, light, smells, and taste. In some cases, kids with autism find it painful to be in the same room with very loud sounds or strong smells—and most are very picky eaters.
Thanksgiving is all about the senses. Your child will likely be presented with a range of foods he/she has never eaten before, most of which have unusual textures (think JELL-O mold!). Saying “no” to various parts of the meal could hurt Aunt Sally’s feelings or upset someone’s belief that a Thanksgiving without cranberry sauce isn’t worth celebrating. Smells are also an issue—not only the smells of new foods, but also the smells that may come along with new people. Colognes and cigarettes can be tough for children with autism to manage.
At the same time as your child is coping with smells and tastes that may be overwhelming, he/she will also be dealing with NOISE! Loud conversations, loud ball games on TV, loud shouts from sports fans as their team makes (or doesn’t make) a touchdown. There may also be loud children (crying babies are a special concern).
How to Handle It:
Sound is probably the easiest sensory issue to address. Fortunately, we live in a time when children and teens often disappear from adult company with headphones on! Take advantage of this reality by allowing your child to wear sound-erasing headphones and/or listen to music as needed and possible. Headphones may not be appropriate at the table, but they may be very useful in the family room as others are screaming “GO GO GO” at the television!
Food issues are also less of an issue now than when many parents were growing up. Many children and even teens are picky, and it’s not all that unusual for a child to prefer PB and J to fancy chestnut stuffing. If you absolutely must, pack a meal for your child—but it’s also a great idea to bring a dish to share that your child can enjoy with everyone else. If all else fails, chips and dip or bread and butter are welcome additions to most holiday tables.
Smells are tough. If your child is very sensitive to personal smells such as colognes, you can actually teach the child to hold his/her breath while hugging. But more ambient food smells can’t be erased. If your child is truly uncomfortable with the smells of food or smoke, you may need to consider staying away.
“Expected” Social Behaviors
Many families may assume a child with autism will want to be a part of the annual touch football game. They may insist that your child be part of the “children’s table,” when you know he/she needs to stay beside you so you can oversee food choices and behaviors.
Or worse, they may assume that “the kids will be just fine downstairs” and suggest that you’re a worry wart when you pop down to be sure your child with autism isn’t feeling overwhelmed or behaving aggressively.
How to Handle It:
Kids with autism don’t behave typically. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be included. Here are some possible directions to take, depending upon your child and the specifics of the situation:
- Choose a young cousin or friend who seems to understand your child and ask him/her to become a “buddy” for the day. If necessary, pay for the time and effort. Ask the caregiver to make sure your child is comfortable, provide him/her with some ideas for calming your upset child, and suggest some games, videos, or activities that your child might enjoy. Then let the two join the other children, resting in the fact that you have support.
- Practice specific traditional activities that your family tends to enjoy. For example, teach your child any touch football skills that he is ready and able to learn. Then, let your family know “Joey does a great job of keeping score” or “Sally is great at finding the ball when it goes out of bounds.” Even if your child is doing something a little different, make sure he/she is an active part of the game.
- If no cousin or sibling is available to help your child cope throughout the day, you may need to give in to necessity and become his/her shadow for the day. It may not be ideal, but the alternative—allowing your child to fall apart—is far worse!
Being Judged or Advised
No matter how careful you are to prepare your child with autism for Thanksgiving, he/she may behave differently: flapping, making strange noises, walking away, or bursting into tears. And chances are, you’ll find yourself (and your child) on the receiving end of judgments and “good advice.” You may notice people looking in your direction as they talk quietly in a corner. More likely, you’ll hear an awful lot of suggestions, ideas, direction, and media-based “insights” from well-meaning friends and relations.
Most of the time, judgments and advice are the result of ignorance. If your child is high functioning, it may be hard for others to understand that yes, he/she really is disabled and no, it’s not just a matter of discipline. If your child’s symptoms are more severe, it may be hard for your relatives to resist sharing the latest “cures” they heard about on TV or read about on the Internet.
How to Handle It:
As the parent of a child with autism, you will be the focus of helpful interventions—unless you decide to go off the grid altogether! You have a few choices about how to handle it.
- Best: Grow a thick skin, smile, and say thank you—unless the person you’re talking with truly wants to understand your child’s particular needs and your particular choices. If they really care, tell them all about it!
- Second Best: Kindly, but firmly, say, “Thanks, but I think we’re doing just fine,” and walk away. If things really get out of hand for some reason, find an excuse to leave early.
- Worst: Stick around and lecture your friends and relations about the symptoms of autism, appropriate treatments, ridiculous myths, and the truly heinous lies perpetrated by the media!
If All Else Fails…
You just don’t have the energy or desire to work hard just to spend a few hours eating turkey with your family. You don’t want to risk the possibility that your child will have a complete meltdown in front of your entire clan. And you most certainly don’t want to risk the possibility that YOU will have a complete meltdown in front of your friends and family!
What can you do?
- If you are staying far from home, and your host is expecting a crowd, consider booking a hotel room. That way, you can arrive late, leave early, and promise your child a quiet time with his favorite video at the end of the day.
- Host the event yourself and hire someone to either cater the event or take charge of your child for the whole day.
- Let your family know that you intend to celebrate Thanksgiving quietly at home, but you’d love to see them—a few at a time—at a less stressful time of year.
Sometimes, the best option may be to…opt out!
Lisa Jo Rudy writes about autism for Verywell.com and is the author of the book “Get Out, Explore, and Have Fun,” a guide for community involvement for families of children with autism. Lisa also consults and provides training on autism and inclusion for museums, zoos, and other community organizations.
This article was featured in Issue 54 – Surviving Family Challenges