As families plan to gather for Thanksgiving to share much-loved traditions, food and even football games on the TV, parents of a child with autism may be extra busy behind the scenes anticipating the many experiences this year’s celebration will bring.
Each child is different, and each parent will have different challenges, says Jennifer Thomas, Ph.D., BCBA-D, LBA, Director of Clinical Standards at Healing Haven, an autism therapy center for children and teens in Madison Heights. Because every family gathering is an opportunity to build social skills, Dr. Thomas suggests that parents resist the temptation to forgo Thanksgiving entirely and instead focus on how to bring joy to the day, even in small amounts.
“Thanksgiving is not necessarily the time to push your child, but it is a time to recognize that many people have trouble with large, noisy gatherings and busy surroundings,” Dr. Thomas says. “Set your child up for success by thinking of ways to make the day an enjoyable experience for your child and your hosts or guests.”
Because it’s simply overwhelming to manage every little aspect of a major holiday like Thanksgiving, try scaling back this year and wrap your arms around small ways to make the holiday pleasant.
Here, Dr. Thomas offers five simple tips to help make Thanksgiving joyful for your child with autism — and for your whole family.
1. Accept the invitation to celebrate at a relative’s home.
“Ideally, you aren’t hosting Thanksgiving in your own home. Being the guest allows you to leave whenever you need to. But be sure to communicate with your family ahead of time that you may need to leave early if your child is over-stimulated,” Dr. Thomas says.
Another creative way to set boundaries is to host dinner and another family member host dessert. This can spread out the workload and have a more defined end time at your own home. However, if you are hosting the entire holiday many of these tips can be implemented in your own home to help you and your child have a joyful Thanksgiving.
To set your child up for success, create your own expectations for the holiday. “Maybe have an expectation for your child interacting with others at Thanksgiving. If your child is social but anxious around people, set the expectation that they will say hi to five family members. That’s it. Use this as an opportunity to practice engagement,” she explains.
2. Think ahead about new or unpreferred foods.
“We do find that children with autism can be selective eaters, even more so than the typical kid, so you may have to bring their favorite foods with you,” Dr. Thomas says. Fortunately, Thanksgiving offers the standard fare of turkey, stuffing and maybe even mac ‘n’ cheese, so even if you can’t find out what’s on the menu, you can make an educated guess. Work from there, suggests Dr. Thomas.
“If your goal is to have your child try one or more of these foods, fix them at home before Thanksgiving. Sometimes children won’t tolerate a particular food on their plate, but maybe it can sit next to their plate on the table. If it’s your goal to have it on their plate, try increasing exposure gradually,” she says.
Whatever goal you set is appropriate, even if it’s just to have an item or two on your child’s plate as they sit next to their cousins at the table.
3. Consider your child’s sensory needs and seek refuge when needed.
Thanksgiving celebrations include hot kitchens, crowded spaces, loud voices cheering on the football team and many other unanticipated sensory experiences. Plan for these by letting your child take a break in their bedroom if you are staying home. Or ask your host for use of a quiet room where your child can retreat, preferably before they get overwhelmed.
“Maybe explain that you want to expose your child to the day in phases. You expect them to say hi to five people, or even just take a walk around the living room and take a look at the food and then take a break,” Dr. Thomas suggests. “It’s important that you aren’t putting your child in the back room for the whole time, but provide a good learning opportunity for them and set them up for success.”
If you have an ABA therapy team to support you, all the better, she says. “They can help you create a plan if your child is sensitive to lights or sounds.”
4. Create a mantra to manage your own stress positively.
You deserve to have some enjoyment, too, so think about what might bring you joy for the Thanksgiving holiday and prioritize that.
“This can actually help you create a timeline. Maybe only stay at your family’s home for an hour and leave on a positive note. Go early when grandparents are there and give hugs and kisses. Ideally, your family will be understanding of your needs,” Dr. Thomas says.
Before the big day, devote some time to developing a mantra that you feel comfortable saying — especially if your choices are questioned by well-meaning family members. “I like parents to think about the mantra for themselves,” Dr. Thomas says.
You might say something like “This is where we are on our journey and we are proud that Johnny is here with us today. We are proud that he was able to come here and be around all our family members.” Focus on the positive!
5. Reach out and include a family with autism this holiday.
If you’re hosting a child, teen or adult on the autism spectrum this Thanksgiving, that’s wonderful. Consider their needs and be as accommodating as you can because friendship and thinking of others is what Thanksgiving is all about!
Go the extra mile when hosting a child with autism by reaching out directly to the family to learn what will create success for them. “Speak to the child’s parents before the day and ask what might cause a challenge and then consider how to prevent it,” Dr. Thomas says. If loud noises or bright lights will be overstimulating, find a quiet space in your home and make it a welcoming spot.
“Don’t use the room where everyone is putting their coats!” Dr. Thomas warns, and put pets in another room for the day, if you can.
Learn some of the child’s preferred activities and create a table that will be engaging and fun. “If I were hosting a child with autism, I’d have things for the child to do. If they like to color, I’d get new coloring books and crayons. I’d have little tattoos and stickers — think non-electronics,” she says. “Maybe even offer a schedule. Kids can play with blocks and color, then take a break for some snacks. Then they can go outside for a while.”
And don’t worry about filling up on snacks before dinner, says Dr. Thomas, “because the social aspect of Thanksgiving is what’s most important.”
Learn more about the unique ABA therapy services for kids and teens at Healing Haven. Visit thehealinghaven.net.