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Thanksgiving and Autism

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Thanksgiving and autism don’t always mix well. It’s common to hear stories about kiddos refusing to eat food or getting overwhelmed with all the people. You might even hear about families unable to bring their children to the festivities at all. However, with some planning and prep work, I have found that parents can enjoy thanksgiving with their children with autism. Keep reading for my tips and tricks on thanksgiving and autism!

A lot of work often has to go into getting children on the autism spectrum ready for the holidays.

I’ve written a lot about holidays like Haunnakah and Christmas in the past.

However, Thanksgiving is also important and requires its own host of tips and tricks! 

So in this post, we’re going to cover when you should take your child to thanksgiving, what to do to prepare them, and ideas for making the party pleasant for everyone!

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This is a tough question and not one I or any other service provider can answer for you. 

If your child does not function in a typical way and forcing them to go would make them miserable, then deciding not to take them is valuable. 

When you’re the caregiver of a child with special needs, you have to think about what is in their best interest and comfort level. Not what would make you happiest, and it’s a hard line to walk.

I remember the last Christmas before my grandmother died; she had dementia and was wheelchair-bound and living in a nursing home where she was very comfortable.

Most of my aunts and uncles, though, insisted that she had to come to Christmas. The whole experience was disorienting for her and upset her. She didn’t recognize any of us and was nervous throughout the whole event. 

Her presence there was not about making her happy but making other people happy, and while autism and dementia are not the same thing, I think there’s some wisdom to this story.

Will your child learn and grow from the experience, or is their going only about making others happy or meeting social expectations? 

 You want to make sure that whatever decision you make is based on what’s best for your child.  

That being said, just because your child might be miserable the whole time is not a reason to say they can’t go to family Thanksgiving parties.

I actually, as a 1:1 interventionist, loved when my kiddos had functions like this because it gave us something to work towards and concrete reasons and deadlines to build skills.

I’ve written about it in my post Teach to an Event.

So when deciding if your child should go or not, consider if they have time to learn needed skills and if this would be a growing experience for them.

Also, if you’re able to ask your child, then, by all means, do so. That doesn’t have to be the end all be all, as you are the parent, but getting their opinion is always helpful.

I’m not talking about cooking or cleaning here.

When you’re dealing with Thanksgiving and autism, you need to consider the skills your child will have to possess to function at the party you’ll be attending. 

This will depend largely on the party you’re going to and your child’s level of functioning. 

Common skills they might need are

  • Eating with utensils 
  • Tolerating crowds 
  • Tolerating noises
  • Conversation skills
  • Interacting with other children
  • Eating new foods
  • Self-regulation skills
  • Self-advocacy skills

I recommend talking to your children’s teachers or in-home service providers before the party and brainstorming ways to build up whatever skills they will need.

Obviously, you can’t do this the day before the party. It takes a few weeks for children on the spectrum to master a new skill set.

Try talking to them as Halloween is winding down about what you want to do for Thanksgiving and get their input on what your child needs to work on to have a successful Thanksgiving.

Then make sure to check in with them again on what your child needs in terms of promptings and what their skill level is before the party. This way, you can be in tune with what your child requires when they’re at the event.

Before going to the party, check your attitude. Your child on the spectrum probably won’t have mastered every skill they need perfectly. 

In fact, sometimes, kids can do things in a controlled setting but not in a party setting. 

I once worked with a child on learning how to play pin the tail on the donkey for weeks before a birthday party. When the time came, they got nervous because there were more people around than when we played and wound up refusing to put on the blindfold and just sticking the tail on after I spun them.

It was no big deal because I was flexible. 

So don’t put pressure on your child to be perfect at this party. You’re hopefully spending it with family or chosen family, who will love and support you and your child no matter what. This is a supportive environment.

Celebrate any new skills they demonstrate at the party and brag about how good they’re doing. They might get embarrassed, but I always think it’s better to feel embarrassed than unsupported.

It’s important that afterward, your child feels successful and had a good time because that will make them more willing to go to other functions and typical life events with family. 

There are things you can do to make sure your child with autism has a nice time at Thanksgiving.

  • Bring food you know they like
  • Ask the host for a quiet space for them to take breaks
  • Bring toys or devices for breaks
  • Get a good night’s sleep before

This isn’t a complete list, and you can feel free to add to it, given your child’s specific needs. 

What to do with your holiday is a very personal decision and one no one else can make for you. I do hope you consider letting your child on the spectrum attend, though, as it’s such a wonderful growth opportunity. 

However, no one knows your child better than you do, and you have good judgment. Believe in yourself and make the decision that is in the best interest of your child, and ignore people who are naysayers or only offer judgment but no help. 

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