Thanksgiving can be hectic for children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), but with careful planning, you can have an autism-friendly Thanksgiving. The day can be full of stimuli like loud noises, breaks in routine, and a sense of encroachment on a child’s space and belongings. This excitement may culminate in a feeling of being overwhelmed. However, it can also be an unparalleled time to forge new memories amidst merriment, family, and food.
With planning, every parent can ensure their child is comfortable and nurtured this holiday season by making an autism-friendly Thanksgiving! Celebrating an autism-friendly Thanksgiving builds positive associations that last a lifetime and helps your child feel valued!
Autism-friendly Thanksgiving and Setting Expectations
Perhaps the biggest hurdle of Thanksgiving for the neurodivergent is the disruption of what is familiar or their typical way of navigating everyday tasks. Celebrating an Autism-friendly Thanksgiving involves preparing your child early for the holiday. Just as you might explain an event to a friend attending for the first time, preparing a child with a forecast of the day is essential. This preparation process entails explaining the holiday, planning, and communicating. Here are four tips to help you create an autism-friendly Thanksgiving.
1. Explain Thanksgiving Day.
Have fun describing the day. Let them know the reason for gathering, the history of Thanksgiving, and what it might represent to share a meal with those you love the most. Perhaps it’s not so different from a special day when they get to eat their favorite food or visit their favorite restaurant. Establish right away that this is a relaxing day to celebrate what makes them happiest in life and what makes them thankful.
2. Describe What the Day Involves.
With the preliminaries out of the way, try to schedule and eliminate as many surprises as possible. Decorating, a busy kitchen, music, guests, lively conversation, explain all step by step to your child. Carefully walk through the plans: when you begin cooking, when it is time to get dressed, when guests are expected, what the seating will be like, and which foods will be served.
If you are traveling, make them aware of the itinerary, car, or plane ride length. Entice them with some details about the travel process. Any landmarks along the way worth noticing or neat technical facts about an airplane could turn a trip into a positive experience.
Working in activities they enjoy can help ease the transition. For example, if your child is a picky eater, have some of their favorite snacks on hand. Introduce them to whatever will be served and acclimate them to sweets like cornbread or savory foods like mashed potatoes. If dining etiquette is a concern, a small rehearsal dinner where they roleplay proper tableside manners can go a long way toward clarifying any confusion. Rewarding your child’s commendable behavior with access to things they like in the style of ABA therapy can reinforce patterns that make everyone happy. Don’t forget to let your child know this is the perfect holiday for those with a sweet tooth, and at the end of dinner, there will be desserts that they’ll love. Integrating the routine tends to make new experiences easier to tackle, and building in activities your child enjoys throughout the day can go a long way to making them comfortable. If they enjoy painting, make the turkey drawing a marquee event and celebrate their work. If they prefer playing with a particular toy or puzzle, allow them to do so as you cook, greet guests, or travel. Follow your child’s cues and allow them to share in the holiday spirit in their own way. Most importantly, set aside a private space, and always let them know they can excuse themselves if they get overwhelmed. Through patient communication, you can build a sense that Thanksgiving is not an interruption but a supplement to their day and a cheerful time when they get to do more of what they want.
3. Let Them Know Who They Will See.
Interacting with different people a neurodivergent child is not acquainted with can lead to sensory overload. Part of setting expectations is letting them know that people will speak to them during Thanksgiving. A guest list helps introduce each person to your child; consider including relevant details like their relationship and maybe a fun fact about them. Showing a picture of each guest can also chip away at that feeling of unfamiliarity.
If there are similarly aged kids, present it as an opportunity to play and show off their interests and skills, reinforcing that they can always take a break when interacting becomes too intense.
It is just as essential to discuss guests with your child as it is to discuss your child’s needs with your guests. Remember, like any other, your child has likes and dislikes, preferred topics of conversation, and skills they have mastered. Some kids are very knowledgeable about dinosaurs, some about the cosmos, and some about technology. Whatever their unique interest, encourage your guests to meet them on that field and allow your child to impress them. That said, you should clearly convey the boundaries of communication and set reasonable expectations for interaction. If specific triggers, like loud music, can cause discomfort, ask guests to keep the volume to an acceptable level. Extensive physical touch, such as greeting with a hug, can also be a stressor. Instruct guests that a handshake and a friendly smile hello would be swell. All guests should be aware of severe behaviors like self-harm and aggression, along with the best tactics to avoid accidental escalation. Let visiting parents know any techniques you use to manage incidents and assure them that it’s best not to be taken aback by your child’s behavior but to realize that your child is trying to communicate. Often, it’s just a matter of removing unwanted stimuli to resolve a situation. Since Thanksgiving is a family affair, guests will bring similarly-aged kids and tell them to play. Implore them to converse with their child about what to expect and how to act, not being rude or pushy, and respecting personal items and space. If your child has difficulty socializing with others, let guests know that their child might play alongside yours instead of directly with them. Open communication and thoroughness will be the key to ensuring everyone has an enjoyable autism-friendly Thanksgiving at their own pace.
4. Expect the Unexpected.
You can only account for some things. There will be mistakes, misbehavior, and guests that get caught up in the season and don’t always follow the rules. Remain patient, don’t lose your cool, and remember breaking the ice is a process. An autistic child needs time to get used to a new environment and leeway to explore it in their preferred way.
You might be pleasantly surprised at what new traditions your family can invent by letting your child personalize the holiday. Are formal clothes too stodgy? Casual evening wear like slippers and pajamas can create a welcoming atmosphere.
Be content and take pride in making the correct preparations; afterward, don’t feel stressed when some deviation happens. The natural course of events, charming interactions, shared playtime, and conversations can lead to rewarding experiences for your child and guests. Thanksgiving can be an opportunity to grow and strengthen bonds, discover a new favorite uncle, or learn that a family member is an excellent cook.
Children on the autism spectrum are not in any way precluded from sharing in the joy of discovery. If given the correct space for self-expression, they will find ways to thrive and embrace the idea of an autism-friendly Thanksgiving.
ABA Centers of Florida and Autism-Friendly Thanksgiving
ABA Centers of Florida understands that the holidays can be a demanding experience for many families with children on the spectrum. Our ABA professionals work with families to help children develop the skills they need to enjoy holidays like Thanksgiving to the fullest! For more information about our ABA services and how we can support your family, call us at (772) 773-1975 or visit ABACentersFL.com.