Thanksgiving is a great holiday for spending time with your family. Each family is unique and has their own traditions for how to celebrate this holiday. Some might have a dinner at home with close relatives and others might have multiple family gatherings in which they travel to visit family or friends.
Regardless of how the holiday is spent, many parents of children with autism spectrum disorder, might share one thing in common – holidays can be stressful in some ways.
Thanksgiving and Autism
Your child’s autism might make it difficult for them to adjust to changes in their schedule. Kids with autism often prefer to know what to expect. They often like routines, so any changes can be stressful and overwhelming for them.
If your child has sensory issues, they might get overwhelmed by the sensory experiences related to holidays. Sensory overload might occur from the loud noises that often come with large gatherings at Thanksgiving. Your child might also experience sensory issues when it comes to the smells of the holiday – smells from a variety of foods being cooked, scents that are meant to make a home smell pleasant, like candles or wax warmers, could also be uncomfortable to some children with autism or those with sensory challenges. Your child might also struggle with trying new foods. This could be due to sensory issues related to the texture or taste of a food or a fixation on only eating certain foods.
The communication and social skills typically expected during the holidays can also be exhausting and difficult to your child. Some of the possible social or communication skills that many people expect their kids to demonstrate during Thanksgiving include things like greeting people as they arrive to the gathering, having small talk with others, answering questions politely, waiting patiently, occupying one’s time while the adults socialize, interacting with unfamiliar relatives – like cousins the child may not have seen in a long time, being calm, and much more.
The core characteristics of autism include challenges with communication and social skills. This looks different for every child but generally, kids with autism have some sort of difficulty with interacting with other people and this can be particularly challenging with new people (like unfamiliar relatives or family friends who attend a holiday event).
As Thanksgiving – or any holiday – can be challenging for kids with autism and for their families, we will share some recommendations for how you can celebrate Thanksgiving as a family in ways that will make it more enjoyable for all family members. The suggestions we’ll offer can support your relationship with your child, as well.
Celebrating Thanksgiving as a Family with a Child with Autism
 Plan ahead
Planning ahead prevents stressful experiences from occurring as much as possible. This will look different for each family, but here are some ways to plan and set the stage for having an enjoyable Thanksgiving with the family:
- Make sure your child has been getting quality sleep. Lack of sleep is a strong contributor to behavioral issues and lack of emotional regulation.
- Plan what your child will eat on the day you are celebrating Thanksgiving. If they consume a limited variety of foods – some might call this being a picky eater – it is helpful to plan out what your child will eat on a holiday. You might even need to pack a meal if you are going somewhere that won’t be serving what your child does eat.
- Have a plan for how to help your child if they get too overwhelmed or if they have a tantrum. Be compassionate as your child may not have the self-regulation skills to stay calm and behave in the ideal way on the holiday. You might decide to offer your child a quiet spot in the house or outside where they can go if they need a break from being around people. Doing this before a meltdown is ideal.
 Monitor your child’s sensory experience
Throughout the Thanksgiving event, check in on your child. Even if your child can occupy their own time and doesn’t need constant supervision, it is important to check on your child periodically throughout a holiday event. You should try to do this in a discreet way as to not make your child feel uncomfortable. You might observe whether your child seems at ease or if they appear to be getting anxious or stressed.
If your child has a particular behavior, like a stereotypic or repetitive behavior, that they do when they are anxious, stressed, or uncomfortable, you might try to pay attention to whether this behavior is happening or if it is increasing in how often it happens. You might also ask your child how they are doing and see if they need anything to feel more at ease.
 Give options for activities
Many kids are expected to find things to do on their own during holiday events with family. This is okay in many families. However, some kids don’t have the skill to play independently or to play or interact with others, especially with others they aren’t familiar with. Some kids also find it difficult to figure out what to do in new environments.
To help your child have a better Thanksgiving, you could offer them a few options for things they can do. You might also consider bringing specific activities for your child to help them pass the time if you are going somewhere for Thanksgiving. The activities you offer or provide to your child will depend on their interests and their abilities, but some ideas include coloring, playing a game with someone, reading, playing with blocks, playing a video game, etc.
 Create a reinforcement plan
As with all behaviors that we’d like our kids to do more of, it is important to provide positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcement is when something happens after a behavior that makes it more likely for that behavior to happen again in the future. You might use verbal praise as a positive reinforcer. Tell your child they are doing a good job playing with the other kids, for example.
You could also offer screen time to your child after they spend a certain amount of time with people during Thanksgiving. For example, your child could be told they should go outside and play with their cousins for 30 minutes then they can go in a quiet room in the house and have screen time on their smartphone for 30 minutes.
 Incorporate your child’s interests
To help your child – and your family - have a more enjoyable Thanksgiving, incorporate your child’s interests into the day or throughout the Thanksgiving season. Children with autism often have focused interests. They tend to focus on one or two main topics and can struggle to do things or to talk about things that aren’t related to things they are interested in. If you allow your child to bring items related to their favorite topics or their favorite activities to the Thanksgiving events, they will be much more likely to enjoy the day and have fewer challenging behaviors and feel less stressed, as well.
An example of this is if your child likes trains, you could allow them to bring a train set to the Thanksgiving event. You might also actively seek out one or two people who will be at the Thanksgiving event who your child can talk to about trains. If you talk to the other person, whether they are an adult or a child, ahead of time, you could let them know that it would be so beneficial for your child if they could have a conversation with them about trains.
Celebrating Thanksgiving Together as a Family
To help Thanksgiving be more enjoyable for your child with autism, yourself as a parent, and your whole family, consider the suggestions we’ve discussed.
- Plan ahead
- Monitor your child’s sensory experience
- Give options for activities
- Create a reinforcement plan
- Incorporate your child’s interests