Autism and Thanksgiving: Adapting traditions to kids with ASD

It's that time of year again! The leaves are changing, the air is getting chilly, and Thanksgiving is just around the corner. For many families, Thanksgiving is a time to come together and share a special meal. But what do you do if your family includes a child with autism? How can you manage autism and Thanksgiving?

Don't worry - we've got you covered! In this post, we'll give you some ideas for adapting Thanksgiving traditions to make them more fun and accessible for kids with ASD. 

How to have an autism-friendly Thanksgiving?

As any parent knows, holidays can be a challenging time for families with autistic children. The sights, sounds and smells of Thanksgiving can be overwhelming for kids on the spectrum, and the large gatherings of family and friends can be too much to handle. 

However, there are a few simple steps that parents can take to make Thanksgiving more enjoyable for the whole family:

autism and thanksgiving

1. Explain what will happen throughout the holidays

For many autistic kids, however, the holiday can be a time of confusion and anxiety. Turkey, stuffing, and pumpkin pie might not make much sense to them.

That's why it's so important for parents to take the time to explain the meaning of Thanksgiving to their autistic child. By doing so, you can help your child to understand and appreciate the holiday, while also teaching them about the importance of gratitude. 

You can talk about the history behind the holidays, talk about the parade, and explain the reason you celebrate Thanksgiving. You can even encourage them to create a little list with everything they’re grateful for. 

2. Create a routine

Autistic children thrive on routine. It helps to provide them with a sense of order and stability in an otherwise chaotic world. Thanksgiving can be a particularly challenging time for autistic kids, as the holiday often features disruptions to the usual routine. 

A good way to help them feel at ease during the holidays is by creating a routine. This can help your child know what to expect and reduce the amount of change and chaos that can trigger anxiety. 

Having a set plan for activities such as decorating the table or cooking the turkey can also make it easier for your child to participate in holiday traditions. Even something as simple as setting out a specific place for your child to sit at the Thanksgiving table can make a big difference.

And, if there will be any changes to mealtimes or bedtimes, let your child know in advance so they can adjust. 

autism kids and thanksgiving

3. Don’t forget the essential items

Here are some essential items that every parent of a child with autism should have on hand during Thanksgiving:

  • Noise-canceling headphones. These can be a lifesaver when there's too much noise and commotion going on.

  • Fidget toys or other objects that can help your child self-regulate. These can provide a much-needed outlet for excess energy and help your child stay calm and focused.

  • A list of your child's favorite foods. Thanksgiving is all about the food, but sometimes kids are not big fans of turkey. So, having a list of their favorite foods on hand will ensure that they have plenty to eat and won't go hungry or cranky. 

4. Create a safe zone

By creating a safe haven – whether it's a quiet room with soft lighting or a special corner with favorite toys – you can help your autistic child feel more comfortable and less overwhelmed by the holiday festivities. And that can make for a more enjoyable Thanksgiving for everyone

This is amazing in case of sensory overload!.

5. Keep things simple

If your kiddo tends to feel overwhelmed when facing sudden changes, this tip is the most important. 

Attending large family gatherings or participating in complex holiday rituals can be challenging for both child and parent. So, keeping things simple during Thanksgiving can help to reduce stress for everyone involved. 

For example, autistic children may benefit from having a specific role during the meal, such as helping to set the table or passing out napkins. Additionally, it may be helpful to limit the number of guests or plan ahead so that there is time for a quiet break if things become too overwhelming.

So, don’t over do it! Just enjoy the awesomeness of a quiet family holiday and know your kiddo’s limits!

autism and thanksgiving

6. Get into the Thanksgiving mood

There are a few things that parents can do to help their children get into the Thanksgiving spirit and enjoy the holiday: 

  • Have a "giving thanks" scavenger hunt. Hide items around the house or yard that represent things your family is thankful for, and have the kids help find them.

  • Make a Thanksgiving sensory bin. Fill a large container with fall-themed objects like leaves, acorns, pine cones, and mini pumpkins. Let the kids explore and play with the materials.

  • Decorate a Thanksgiving card or poster together. Use markers, crayons, stickers, or paint to create a festive design.

  • Make Thanksgiving-themed crafts. There are lots of simple projects that can be tailored to suit any skill level. Try making handprint turkeys, paper treat bags, or personalized place cards.

With a little creativity, you can help your autistic child enjoy all the wonderful aspects of the Thanksgiving holiday.

Autism Thanksgiving: Final thoughts

As the mother of a kid with autism, I know that holidays can be both stressful and rewarding. On the one hand, there is the challenge of managing different schedules and accommodating various sensory needs. However, there is also the joy of watching my kid interact with her family and laughter of shared memories. So, this Thanksgiving, I am particularly grateful for the progress she has made. 

And now, I hope these tips help you create the best Thanksgiving ever for your kids and family. 

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