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8 Thanksgiving Hacks for Kids on the Spectrum

Christmas decorations are up and it’s only November? Well, it must be time for Thanksgiving! (Sorry, couldn’t resist.) In all seriousness, Thanksgiving can be a fun time filled with food, family, joy, and thankfulness. However, the atypical schedules, new foods, and people-packed homes can be a little overwhelming for kids on the spectrum. Here are some ideas for helping your child get through the day.

1. Prepare your child a few weeks ahead

Preparation is vital for many kids on the spectrum. Before the big day, sit your child down and explain the day’s schedule, as well as what type of behavior is expected of them. If unfamiliar or rarely-visited family members will be attending the festivities, show your child pictures of the relatives so they know who they’ll see.

2. Prepare your family to see your child

While it’s important for your child to be prepared for Thanksgiving, it’s equally important for your family to be prepared, particularly if they don’t know much about your kiddo. If your child doesn’t like showing physical affection, give family members a heads-up and assure them it’s nothing personal. If you will not be the one cooking the meal, let your host or hostess know about any dietary needs or preferences. Which leads us to the next point…

3. Don’t force your child to eat food they don’t want to eat

Sometimes kids on the spectrum are picky eaters. Rather than trying to force turkey down your child’s throat (and risking a meltdown in the process!), allow them to eat foods they like. This may mean cooking something separate for them. It may mean bringing the preferred food to a relative’s house. If the latter is the case, be sure to give the host or hostess a forewarning. Again, assure them it’s nothing personal.

4. Try to keep the day as close to your child’s typical schedule as possible

If feasible, do your best to maintain typical schedules. Have your child eat at the normal times, and put your child to bed at the normal time. If you have other rituals, try to keep those consistent as well. It’s okay if it’s not possible — but if that’s the case, be sure to give your child ample warning beforehand.

5. Give your child a safe, quiet space to escape in case of sensory overload

Sensory overload happens. It’s especially a risk when the house is filled with new smells, and the air is noisier than usual, and a lot of people—both familiar and unfamiliar—are crammed under one roof. Designate a safe spot to which your child can escape if everything gets to be too much.

6. Consider seating your child at the end of the table

If your little one is particularly prone to sensory overload, consider seating them at the end of the table, so they aren’t squashed between two other people. This provides a little extra space and removes them from the middle of things.

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7. Praise good, appropriate behavior

Is your child doing well? Make sure to let them know! Positive reinforcement not only works, but it also feels good.

8. Take it easy

This is undoubtedly easier said than done. But you can pull it off by reducing the amount of pressure you put on yourself and your child. Ask for help if you need it. Keep your expectations reasonable and realistic (My Aspergers Child advises penning a list of what you’d ideally like on Thanksgiving, and cutting it in half). Request that others bring something to pass around if cooking a huge meal will be too much for you. And most importantly, take a deep breath, cut yourself a slice of pumpkin pie, and enjoy the quality time you get to spend with your family, being thankful for what you have!

Did we miss anything? What are your Thanksgiving tips?

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A. Stout received a Bachelor of Arts in Writing through Grand Valley State University, graduating Magna Cum Laude in 2015. In addition to being a passionate autism advocate, she is a member of various fandoms, a study abroad alumna, and an animal lover. She dreams of publishing novels and traveling all over the world someday.