On Thanksgiving Day, families across the United States will gather to celebrate gratitude. It can be a time for visiting with close family and others you haven’t seen in a while. It’s a time for remembering the special moments and blessings you are grateful for. If you are hosting the holiday, it can also be a time for making and serving a lot of food that may differ from the usual fare. Festive or not, for families with children on the autism spectrum, Thanksgiving can also present unique challenges.
Children with autism usually have a difficult time with sensory overload, social situations, and changes to their routines. Thanksgiving is one holiday that includes all those scenarios and more. Don’t despair. With these five evidence-based strategies and a bit of planning ahead, your family with autism can have a joyful and inclusive Thanksgiving holiday.
Making Thanksgiving and the Upcoming Holidays Enjoyable for Your Autistic Child
Creating an enjoyable holiday experience for your autistic child requires understanding their unique needs and sensitivities. Let’s explore some strategies and tips to make the holiday more enjoyable.
1. Communicate and Establish Clear Boundaries
It’s important to let your child know what will happen during Thanksgiving or the following days. You can use social stories, role-playing, or even dolls or puppets to explain who will be visiting, how everyone will eat together and socialize, and what it means to be thankful.
Remember to communicate with family and friends who will be attending your gathering. Be sure that they understand your child’s needs and sensitivities, and set clear boundaries and guidelines to avoid misunderstandings or hurt feelings. Doing so can create a comfortable and more inclusive environment where everyone feels respected.
2. Provide a Visual Schedule and Supports
Many children with autism prefer to follow a predictable schedule, and often, with events and holidays like Thanksgiving, that routine is turned upside down. Creating a visual schedule with pictures to show what will occur or when will help provide some calm during this hectic time. Looking at the timeline with your child throughout the day can help them feel less anxious while providing some structure to the whirlwind of events.
For children with autism who have limited verbal communication skills, visual supports such as communication boards or picture exchange systems can be helpful for them to communicate with other family members and friends during the Thanksgiving festivities. These types of supports are useful for non-verbal and minimally verbal autistic people.
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3. Involve Your Child in Meal Planning
Children with autism often have issues with eating certain foods. Eating can be challenging, from how it looks or smells to how it feels in their mouth. Research suggests that when a child with autism can make food choices or help with meal preparation, this can help create better eating habits.
Ask what favorite food item they would like to see on the festive table and give them some age-appropriate tasks to help prepare the dinner. This can help reduce some of those challenges that may have occurred during mealtimes.
4. Offer Sensory-Friendly Foods, Activities, and Spaces
Speaking of foods, because some children with autism are sensitive to certain textures, smells, or tastes, Thanksgiving can present some challenges with the array of sustenance. Be sure to prepare a few options for your child that appeal to their senses. If they prefer softer foods, some mashed potatoes will be a good choice for everyone. If your child enjoys crunchy food, some raw carrots on their plate can help.
As the day progresses with noisy football games and loud discussions, you might have some activities to help engage your child’s senses. Depending on their age, you can set out some craft items so they can make a cute turkey or a thankful collage. Fill some bins with holiday-themed objects or dried corn for them to dig through or pour from one container to another.
Sometimes, sensory overload can occur during a big family event like Thanksgiving. For people with autism, this can be stressful. Plan with your child to designate a special spot if they feel the event has become overwhelming.
Provide fidget toys, noise-canceling headphones, and even a weighted blanket. If they don’t know how, teach them to take calming breaths or perform calming activities. You can schedule these sensory breaks throughout the day to help them reduce their anxiety and hopefully prevent any meltdowns.
5. Be Flexible and Practice Self-Care
Finally, parents and caregivers must remember that flexibility is key with any holiday. Plans change, gravy spills, and children can become overwhelmed with all the frivolities. Holidays can be stressful, so remember to ask for help, take breaks as needed, and give yourself some grace. When you feel calm and have a sense of well-being, you will exude that to the child in your life with autism.
Thanksgiving can be hectic, noisy, and filling, but it can also be fun. Planning for thoughtful communication and visual tools, food and sensory options, and flexibility is key. By utilizing these five evidence-based strategies, Thanksgiving can be a festive and grateful time for your family with autism.
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Q: How can I prepare my autistic child for the sensory challenges of Thanksgiving gatherings?
A: To prepare your child for sensory challenges, consider discussing the event in advance, introduce them to the sights and sounds they might encounter, and offer sensory-friendly items like noise-canceling headphones or comfort objects to help regulate their sensory experience.
Q: What strategies can I use to make Thanksgiving meals more enjoyable for my autistic child?
A: You can make Thanksgiving meals more enjoyable by providing familiar and preferred foods, creating a quiet space for your child to retreat if overwhelmed, and using visual schedules or social stories to help them understand the mealtime routine.
Q: How can I navigate social interactions and family gatherings during Thanksgiving with my autistic child?
A: Navigating social interactions can be challenging. Communicate your child’s needs to family members, set boundaries, and consider designating a safe space where your child can take breaks if social situations become overwhelming.
Q: What activities or traditions can I incorporate to make Thanksgiving special for my autistic child?
A: Consider incorporating sensory-friendly activities like nature walks, craft projects, or engaging in your child’s special interests. Creating Thanksgiving traditions that cater to your child’s interests and preferences can help them feel more included and engaged.
Q: Can community resources or support groups help me prepare for an autism-friendly Thanksgiving?
A: Many community organizations and support groups offer resources and guidance for creating autism-friendly holiday experiences. Reach out to local autism advocacy groups, check for online resources, and connect with other parents who may have valuable insights and advice for making Thanksgiving enjoyable for autistic children.
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