Thanksgiving is a time for family to come together and enjoy one another with grateful hearts—or at least it’s supposed to be that way. For families living with autism spectrum disorder, Thanksgiving can be a recipe for disaster.
Some of my fondest memories of growing up surround holiday traditions. Unfortunately, once I had my own family, which included a child with autism, the traditions took a darker turn. One year, when my husband and I decided to host dinner for twelve people, my son had a nuclear meltdown as we were preparing to cut the turkey. Spending the evening helping him calm down in his bedroom while my family enjoyed a wonderful dinner, I ended up in tears. I ate my heart out because I couldn’t finish preparing the meal. My sister-in-law, Krisy, reassuringly said, “I’ll finish dinner. Go. Do what you need to do.” It was said with such love, consideration, and confidence—not a hint of guilt—that I will forever remember that moment with gratitude.
Family get-togethers can often be a source of stress for parents of kids with autism. Some families find it easier to host the holiday dinner so their child can be on familiar ground and seek solace in his or her own room if needed. Others enjoy going to extended family members’ houses but find it difficult to make it past dinner. Many parents tell me they either feel as if their families feel sorry for them or don’t understand the nature of their child’s disability, which makes it difficult to attend holiday functions. Below are some suggestions and reminders for our extended family members to make the event easier for everyone.
Children With Autism Understand What’s Happening Around Them
Speak to the child as you would any other. People often ignore kids with autism or blatantly talk about them, in their presence, because they assume that since the kids don’t respond, they don’t understand. This took me, the parent, a while to become aware of, so it’s something extended family may not consider. If family members are made aware, Aunt Edna will be less likely to ask why little Tommy isn’t talking or potty trained yet—while he is in earshot.
Be Mindful of Sensory Issues
Children with autism are disturbed by certain sights, sounds, and smells, especially when they are unfamiliar. Crowded spaces filled with lots of noisy people can cause a great deal of anxiety. Provide a quiet room or area where the child can go when overwhelmed; keep it off limits to anyone else. Allow the child to eat dinner in there, watch movies ,or just regroup if needed. The child and parents will be grateful.
Don’t Take It Personally If We Decide to Leave Early or Not Attend
I recently discussed the holidays with an autism mom as she was experiencing anxiety over the idea of Thanksgiving dinner at her in-laws’ house. When I asked why she didn’t stay home this year she said, “My mother-in-law would never let me live it down.” What a shame for this poor family. I reassured her that she needed to do what was right for her child and if that meant disappointing grandma, then so be it. I want to say to family members whose feelings are easily hurt, “It’s not about you.”
I am fortunate to have parents and in-laws who understand and go to great lengths to ensure my child’s comfort, without judgment. My parents take turns watching my son if he chooses not to join us at the dinner table, to give my husband and I the rare opportunity to sit down to an uninterrupted meal. Thanksgiving has become a time I look forward to again, because I am blessed with family who is sensitive not only to my son’s needs, but mine as well.
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