Thanksgiving is a time of gratitude, celebration, and gathering with loved ones. However, for families with autistic children, it can also bring unique challenges. Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) may struggle with sensory sensitivities, communication difficulties, and changes in routine — all of which can make the holiday season overwhelming.
But don’t worry — with a little preparation and some helpful ABA Thanksgiving autism tips, you and your family can enjoy an autism-friendly Thanksgiving.
Understanding autism and the holidays
Before we dive into specific tips, it’s important to understand how autism may impact your child during this time of year. Children on the spectrum often have difficulties with social interactions, communication, and sensory processing. They may also have difficulty understanding the concept of Thanksgiving or why it’s celebrated. This can lead to anxiety or even meltdowns during the holiday.
With this in mind, it’s important to be patient and understanding with your child. Remember that their behaviors are not intentional — they are simply struggling to navigate a world that may not always be easy for them. With that said, let’s explore how you can help make Thanksgiving more manageable for your child.
Managing sensory sensitivities
Sensory sensitivities are common among autistic children — they may be hypersensitive or hyposensitive to certain stimuli. This can make the traditional Thanksgiving meal and environment overwhelming. Here are some ways to manage sensory sensitivities during the holiday.
Create a quiet space
Designate a room or area in your home where your child can retreat to if they become overwhelmed. This space should be free of loud noises, bright lights, and strong smells.
Prepare food alternatives
If your child has food aversions or dietary restrictions, make sure to have alternative options available for them. This can help prevent meltdowns or anxiety related to mealtime.
Use noise-canceling headphones
If your child is sensitive to loud noises, consider providing them with noise-canceling headphones during the holiday dinner.
Your autistic child may already struggle with communication, and with the added pressure of increased social interaction and changes to their routine, expressing their needs may prove extra challenging. Here are some tips to help your child communicate during Thanksgiving.
Visual aids can help assist your child with communication. This can include picture cards, a visual schedule of the day’s activities, or even a social story about Thanksgiving.
Be patient and provide support
Give your child time to process and respond. If they are struggling to communicate, offer them support by providing them with choices or asking yes/no questions.
Use alternative forms of communication
If your child is nonverbal, consider using alternative forms of communication such as sign language, a communication device, or even drawing/writing to express their needs and wants.
Creating a structured and supportive environment
Children with ASD thrive in structured and predictable environments. Thanksgiving can be overwhelming and chaotic for them, so creating a supportive environment is important. To do this, you’ll want to maintain your child’s regular routines as much as possible, including meal and bedtime schedules. Planning ahead is also essential. Discuss the day’s activities and expectations with your child in advance so they know what to expect. You can use social stories to practice and prepare if there are new people coming over. This can help reduce anxiety and meltdowns.
Thanksgiving therapy activities
Despite the potential difficulties, Thanksgiving presents a wonderful opportunity to incorporate ABA therapy ideas and activities into your child’s holiday celebrations. We discuss some Thanksgiving therapy ideas below, but feel free to incorporate your child’s interests into the activities to create a sense of familiarity and excitement. Offer a few activities so that they can choose for themselves what they would like to do at different times of the day.
A gratitude tree
Have your child create a tree out of construction paper and write or draw things they are thankful for on leaves to decorate it.
Involve your child in simple cooking tasks like stirring, measuring, or pouring. These can help with fine motor skills and sensory exploration.
Use role-playing to practice social skills and appropriate behavior during family gatherings.
Thankful scavenger hunt
Create a scavenger hunt around the house or neighborhood for your child to find and collect items they are thankful for.
Create sensory-friendly crafts using different textures, colors, and materials. Such activities can also be a great way to practice following directions and fine motor skills.
Get more helpful advice from Missing Piece
With preparation, understanding, and a little creativity, you can help your child enjoy Thanksgiving while also managing any challenges that may arise. Of course, every child is unique and may require different strategies, but with patience and understanding, you can create a holiday that is enjoyable for the entire family.
Contact us for more helpful resources and to see how we can assist you and your family. Happy Thanksgiving!