Monday, November 20, 2017

A happier Thanksgiving for children and teens with special needs: 12 simple strategies

Thanksgiving was always my favorite holiday growing up. Then I had a child with special needs who couldn't stand the hustle and bustle at our home because of his sensory issues. Meltdowns were inevitable, along with the occasional eye-roll from relatives who thought Max was just being a "brat" and my own disappointment—I so wanted him to enjoy Thanksgiving. It took me a while to accept that even if Max was sitting by himself in the living room, zoning out with a video, that was his idea of a good time. I needed to let go.

These are the best strategies I've learned from experience, and other parents, for making Thanksgiving—and any holiday—happier for children with special needs.

1. Make a schedule, check it twice. 
Many children with autism and other special needs thrive on routine. Create a visual schedule or social story to help them understand how the day will play out, with icons of items (like a turkey dinner) and photos of people who will be there. You can write it out on paper, or use an app like ChoiceworksVisual Routine and MagnusCards.

2. Hello, headphones.
Hubbub and holidays go together like turkey and stuffing. Bring a good pair of noise-reducing headphones for your child (here's a list of the best headphones for kids with autism and sensory issues). The pressure of them on his head may be soothing as well.

3. Do an e-troduction. 
Before the big day, consider sending out an email to family and friends that they can share with their children about yours. You can tell them that, say, your child may get upset because of noise, need more time to finish an activity or like to repeat things because it makes him feel good, and that he appreciates when others listen.

4. Designate a helper/handler.
Tap a relative—adult or teen—to amuse, entertain, or soothe your child, or just give you a twenty-minute break if need be. Discuss ahead of time what your child's needs may be. I

5. Give your child a job.
Having a task or chore can keep a child focused and reduce anxiety. Ask yours to put coats away, pass out napkins, finish tossing the salad or whatever's in keeping with their abilities.

6. Create new Thanksgiving food traditions.
As much as I always wanted Max to enjoy stuffing (I consider it a food group), he just wasn't into it. He has eaten spaghetti for Thanksgiving dinner, peach yogurt and once, a bowl of Chinese fried rice. We've learned to let him eat what makes him happy, and quit trying to get him to conform to tradition. (Pretty much the key to raising a child with special needs.)

7. Bring All The Familiar Stuff.
If you're celebrating Thanksgiving at someone else's home, pack things that regularly give your child comfort, whether it's a favorite bowl or spoon, fidget, toys, books, blanket or even a pillow.

8. Bring a bag of magic tricks, too.
Also known as: raid the dollar store for items (it could be toys or two wooden spoons to bang together, whatever floats your kid's boat) and wrap them up for him to discover. Also consider gift-wrapping a couple of things he already owns and adores for an especially happy surprise.

9. Scope out a quiet spot. 
When you arrive, ask the host where you and your child will be able to hang that's away from the commotion. I know one family who brings a small pop-up tent their child can retreat to (like this one from Pacific play tents or this B. Teepee Play Tent, which has a starry light show). You can always DIY by draping a sheet  over two chairs.

10. Have a big book handy.
This is not for reading—it's in case your child gets overwhelmed sitting at the table by the crowd or the scent of food. You can prop the book in front of her as a shield.

11. Prepare for comments.
The best way to avoid getting upset by insensitive or well-meaning-yet-clueless relatives: Don't engage. Repeat after me: DO. NOT. ENGAGE. If someone says, "Why can't she sit still?" respond, "She's just so excited to be here. Me too! Can you pass the mashed potatoes?" If someone says, "When is he going to talk?" say, "He's on his own timeline, but he communicates in his own way." Thinking about responses ahead of time will help you keep your cool in the moment.

12. Take a little walk...
...assuming it's not totally frigid outside. A change of scenery can be a breath of fresh air for a child who's on sensory overload—and you, too.


  1. Speaking of food, I'm sure Max is excited for Pumpkin pie!

    1. You. Bet! What's your favorite Thanksgiving food, Kathryn? I am all about stuffing!

    2. In my family we had lots of November birthdays.

      There were things like crabmeat and crayfish.

      And it is a month before Chanukah / Christmas / Kwanzaa after all.

      I think I like cranberry juice the best of Thanksgiving food - and the Harvest Home tradition.

  2. I liked the idea of the book as the shield and the entroduction.


Thanks for sharing!