Holidays are opportunities to meet new people and reunite with family. Thanksgiving reminds us to count our blessings and celebrate the bounty in our lives. But for some neurotypicals, holidays can be stressful. You may have social anxiety, complicated histories with family members or worry about planning the perfect event. For autistic individuals, holidays may be stressful for different reasons.
If you’re hosting Thanksgiving this year and have an autistic loved one on the list, learn how to make your event more autism-friendly by incorporating ABA best practices, considering sensory differences and offering family support.
Hosting an autism-friendly Thanksgiving
Every autistic person is different, so the best way to set the day up for success is to ask them, their parents or caretakers directly about their needs and preferences.
Here are some questions to consider.
Do you/your autistic child have any sensory sensitivities?
Are there any sounds, smells or textures that would be overwhelming?
What are your/your child’s social preferences?
Do they prefer to be around a lot of people, or do they prefer to have more time to themselves?
What are your/your child’s preferences for Thanksgiving day?
Do they have any activities that they’re looking forward to, and are there any activities they’d rather avoid? The best activities for the autistic child or adult will depend on their preferences and sensory sensitivities. They may prefer quiet games like puzzles or interactive energy-driven games like charades.
Coping with changes in routines during Thanksgiving
Thanksgiving can be a time of big changes for autistic kids if their routine is disrupted and they’re not seeing the friends or teachers they’re used to. This can be overwhelming for an autistic child who thrives on predictability.
As the designated Thanksgiving host, here are some things you can do to help.
Use a visual schedule
This could be a simple picture chart or a more elaborate PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System) schedule. The schedule should show what will happen throughout the day, including the mealtimes, festive activities and breaks from the day’s stimulation.
Stick to a consistent schedule as much as possible
This will help the autistic person feel more comfortable and in control of what’s going on around them. If there are any unavoidable changes to the schedule, try to let the child know in advance.
Prepare the child for any changes
If you know that there will be a change in routine, such as a new activity or an unfamiliar person coming to the house, try to prepare the child or caregiver beforehand. Talk to them about the change, show them pictures or videos, or consider practicing and acting out the new routine or event.
Communication tips for Thanksgiving
Communication is key to a successful Thanksgiving with autistic adults and children. Here are some tips to help you communicate better.
Simplify your language
Use short, clear sentences and avoid using jargon or slang.
Speak clearly and directly
Make eye contact and speak in a calm, steady, soft-spoken voice.
Be patient and attentive
Give them time to process your words and respond in their own time.
Ask open-ended questions and offer them choices. For example, instead of asking, “What do you want to eat?” you could instead try saying, “Would you like the turkey or the mashed potatoes?” This gives them real options to choose from and makes it easier to communicate what they actually want.
Learn about AAC devices
AAC or Augmentative and Alternative Communication encompasses any method that helps people communicate who cannot or do not speak.
If your autistic guest uses an AAC device, ask them or their caregiver how they would like to communicate during Thanksgiving. Some people may not mind using their device to talk directly to you, while others may prefer using it with a specific family member or caregiver.
How to support guests with sensory sensitivities
Autistic people may be hypersensitive or hyposensitive to certain sensory stimuli. This means that they can be more sensitive or less sensitive to stimulation such as noise, light, textures, tastes and smell.
If you are hosting an event and have an autistic guest, it is important to be aware of sensory sensitivities and know how to support your guest if they’re starting to feel overwhelmed or overstimulated.
1. Offer a quiet space
Designate a quiet room or area where guests can retreat if they become overwhelmed or need a break from the festivities. This could be a home office, spare bedroom or quiet corner. The space should be a calming environment with dim lighting and comfortable seating. Try to remove overstimulating artwork, objects or decorations.
2. Be mindful of lighting and noise
Consider using dimmable and soft lighting to avoid harsh or flickering lights that may be distressing for some guests. You could also do any loud cooking or cleaning before the event so that the noise levels are lower during the actual gathering. When you’re moving around the house, try to place things down softly and consciously to avoid making loud noises.
3. Offer sensory tools
Sensory tools can help autistic adults and children to self-regulate and manage sensory input. Noise-canceling headphones are great at blocking out sounds completely, but they’re not very subtle in social settings. On the other hand, noise-dampening earphones and earbuds can dampen noise while still allowing you to blend in and join in the fun. Fidget toys and stress balls are good options, too, because they help disperse anxious or excited energy, which helps the autistic individual focus on conversation and stay calm during Thanksgiving activities. If you’re unable to provide any of these tools, don’t worry. The autistic individual or their caregiver may already have some that they bring with them to gatherings. Just remind them.
4. Plan for strong smells
If you’re cooking, be conscious of the smells that may be overwhelming for some of your guests. Opt for milder spices in your cooking to avoid overpowering scents. Open windows or use fans to ventilate the kitchen, and refrain from using strong fragrances like candles and incense that could trigger sensory sensitivities. You can also ask guests ahead of time to be mindful of wearing strong-smelling perfumes, hair products and colognes.
5. Offer food options
When planning your Thanksgiving feast, be sure to check with your guests about any food sensitivities or preferences. Some autistic people may have trouble eating certain foods, so it’s important to be accommodating. Offer a variety of food options and keep some of the ingredients separately. You could also allow guests to bring their own “safe foods” that they know they can eat and that they feel comfortable with.
ABA best practices for Thanksgiving day
Applied behavior analysis (ABA) is a type of therapy that uses positive reinforcement and specific techniques to help people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) acquire new skills and behaviors most effectively.
Praise positive behaviors
When your autistic guests are doing something well, praise them. This helps them feel good, creates a welcoming environment, and encourages them to continue with positive behaviors.
Avoid negative reinforcement
If your guests are doing something that’s not appropriate for a public setting, redirect them instead of putting them on the spot or punishing them. Redirection helps them learn what is expected of them in that social context and makes it more likely that they’ll repeat that positive behavior.
Respect personal space
Autistic individuals may be sensitive to physical contact or crowded spaces. It’s important to respect their personal space and give them the option to hug or not. Some people might be uncomfortable with physical touch and affection, especially from strangers or family members they may not see often. So, remember to ask before you touch someone, don’t hover or crowd someone’s space and give people plenty of space to move around.
Family support: understanding and nurturing
Perhaps most importantly, encourage open conversations about autism within your own family. Talk to your family members about what autism is, how it affects different people and how they can best support the guest attending Thanksgiving.
By being thoughtful, accommodating and understanding, you can help your loved one feel cared for, considered and loved.
Contact us to find out more about how we can help you and your ABA therapy practice.