It’s the most wonderful time of the year, but even with all the enjoyable holiday festivities to look forward to, for many families, it also means navigating all that comes with the holidays that can be overwhelming for a child with autism. Considering all the new aspects involved with holiday celebrations, including travel, unfamiliar social environments, new foods, decorations and busy schedules, it’s a lot for everyone to handle, but even more so when a child has autism and/or sensory sensitivities.
We’ll walk through aspects of Thanksgiving that should be planned ahead of time to avoid challenges, and then also discuss ways to prepare your child and your loved ones ahead of major events so that everyone can enjoy Thanksgiving and create memories together.
How to Prepare Your Child for the Holidays
One of the most impactful ways you as a parent can help your child navigate Thanksgiving is by preparing them for what to expect.
Explaining Thanksgiving and What to Expect
Talking about what to expect during Thanksgiving can help children understand how to prepare for new experiences. Parents can do this a multitude of ways, including looking at pictures of previous Thanksgiving holidays together. This helps children visualize new sights and textures related to food, unfamiliar faces of relatives they may not have seen in awhile, as well as seasonal decor and decorations that may feel unfamiliar. They get a chance to prepare for what feels foreign or uncomfortable prior to actually being in the situation.
Prior to Thanksgiving Day, families can discuss expectations for the day—perhaps specific relatives they are excited to see, the types of food that will be served, and where the family may sit and eat together. All of these details, when spelled out ahead of time, help prepare your child and set them up for success. Deciding which details are shared should be very tailored to your child’s abilities.
Parents may also consider setting up a holiday countdown calendar (which can be useful for holidays outside of Thanksgiving, too), so that your family has expectations of when Thanksgiving is coming and it doesn’t feel surprising when it finally does arrive.
Practicing Mealtime Behaviors
Weeks before a major Thanksgiving celebration, talk to your child about what the celebration may look like. Describe the environment, including people, decorations, foods as well as smells. Because mealtime can already be a challenging time for children with autism, navigating Thanksgiving is like navigating an everyday mealtime, but with additional challenges thrown into the mix. That means that practicing this new environment and their reactions to it will go a long way. If you have the time, consider doing a pre-Thanksgiving dinner with your immediate family and introduce common Thanksgiving foods to your child during that smaller, intimate setting first. Then the big Thanksgiving dinner is no longer the first time that they will be introduced to those foods.
When it comes to Thanksgiving day, prepare yourself that your child will make mistakes. Reinforce that this is a new and unfamiliar setting, and perfection is never the goal. When you create a plate for your child to eat at the celebration, offer your child new foods, but do not be disappointed or surprised if they decide not to try them. Forcing them to try a new food, or acting offending if they don’t try a family member’s special dish, won’t help your child in the situation.
How to Prepare Your Family and Loved Ones
As you prepare for Thanksgiving, it’s beneficial to have similar preparation conversations with relatives and friends you will see at a gathering, especially the host of the Thanksgiving meal. Some relatives may have never interacted with a child with autism, or may have never met your child before. Being open, transparent and straightforward will also enable them to be as accommodating and understandable as possible. It’s also a good time to reinforce that there will be no need to apologize for your child’s behavior. Letting them know ahead of time about what to expect does not communicate an apology, but rather, an awareness. It also provides the opportunity for loved ones to become more educated about individuals with varying abilities before the gathering. During those conversations, tell them about your child’s strengths—their incredible imagination, sense of humor, and smile. Your child is incredible — and that’s worth discussing too!
Specifically, you can prepare family and friends that your child may require more time to adjust to a gathering with a lot of people, and there could be disruptions in the day. Potentially communicate that your child may require a quiet alone space if the meal becomes overwhelming, and ask them to have this space planned ahead of time.
Additional details to alert loved ones to may include:
- How your child prefers to communicate with others
- Your child’s social skill preferences and patterns regarding how they interact with others
- Potential severe problem behaviors (aggression, self-injury, property destruction) and the best ways to respond or alert you
- Mild problem behaviors like whining and how to respond
How to Plan for Airport Travel with Your Child with Autism
If your Thanksgiving celebration involves air travel, prepare to discuss the logistics involved, in the most straightforward way as possible, with your child. Let them know that you will drive to the airport, walk to the airplane, and then fly to the destination. Expect that new sights, sounds and experiences could feel overwhelming, and allow plenty of time for your family to navigate the airport so that your child does not feel rushed.
Frequently Asked Questions
How does preparing a child with autism for Thanksgiving help them?
Preparing for Thanksgiving by describing the experience ahead of time allows your child to ask questions and absorb the information before actually being a part of that experience. It can decrease the likelihood that your child responds negatively to a situation, or decreases the disruption’s duration when they do experience something new or unsettling. Your ABA therapist may also be able to incorporate preparing for Thanksgiving into your child’s therapy leading up to the holiday.
Preparing for a new situation reinforces that you as a parent are the safe, comforting caregiver who will support them throughout these new experiences when they need a hug or someone to talk to.
What is the best way to celebrate Thanksgiving with a special needs child?
Families who have children with special needs should share in the excitement of the season, and follow their child’s cues. While there may be aspects of a holiday that may need to be modified so that your child is comfortable and enjoying themselves, there is no right or wrong way to celebrate a Thanksgiving holiday.
If you are interested in learning if Acorn Health is the right place for your child to begin their ABA therapy journey, call us to schedule a free consultation at 844-244-1818.