Thankfulness in the Midst of Autism

Mother and daughter with pumpkin and fall leavesThanksgiving 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.

© Copyright 2011 by By Janeen Herskovitz, MA, LMHC, therapist in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Pam Gowna

    Pam Gowna

    November 14th, 2011 at 4:55 PM

    Sometimes you just have to be thankful for what God gives you, and know that He does not give you anymore than what He knows that you can handle. My own son has mild autism so even that can be tough sometimes, but imagining my life without him is more than that I can bear. So we just keep going. It is hard and it is a challenge but it is worth it considering that wonderful gift of my som that I was given 12 years ago.

  • Shantel


    November 15th, 2011 at 5:08 AM

    How on earth could someone get offended if a parent of a child with autism decides to bow out or leave an event early? They are thinking of the child and her happiness, and not themselves and that should be admired and not disdained.

  • Jennifer Earls

    Jennifer Earls

    November 15th, 2011 at 6:02 AM

    My nephew, who I help raise,is labeled as being on the spectrum. This blog make me feel great just because I know we are not the only ones going through it! Sometimes even though you know you are not it still feels like it. I think I would have added people need to be aware that it is not rude for a child not to speak back to them. No matter how much coaxing and talking about manners my nephew sometimes will not respond to a simple hello. It drives me insane when adults insist on making him talk. It just drives him to cling worse. Thanks for the ideas and Happy Holidays!

  • jess


    November 15th, 2011 at 10:16 AM

    while it is understandable that parents of kids with autism would have it tougher than others especially during the holidays,it should never become a reason for parents to be afraid of or avoid having a friend stopped going to friends’ places with her family because her son’s autism seemed to be growing and its almost as if she created a cocoon for him and for all the family.I dont think that is a very healthy thing to do.

  • savannah


    November 15th, 2011 at 5:14 PM

    Autism is hard and it is complicated. But it is no reason to have to lose out on other important aspects of your life.

    There is help and there are resources when you know how to find them and where to look for them.

    Don’t lose out on the rest of your life due to this challenge. It is a challenge and it can be hard, but it is not a death sentence.

    Advances are being made every day into the study of autism, and families are having more hope and promise than ever.

  • Lanny.R


    November 15th, 2011 at 11:49 PM

    Most often the problem is that people dont seem to understand the condition and like you have mentioned they may speak about the child in their presence which could further worsen the problem and make them feel bad.

    While it is not really possible to go on and explain about the condition to everyone,it would be great if people can just try and be a little considerate to kids in general.

    I have seen various incidents where the exact opposite has happened and it not only puts the child down but leaves the parents feeling pathetic at the end of it.

  • BETH


    November 16th, 2011 at 9:59 AM

    “Don’t take it personally if we decide to leave early or not attend.”

    This is the most important part if you ask me. A lot of parents just feel obligated to attend celebrations even though their child may be having one of those times where everything is chaotic.

    Take a step back and get things in order. Attending something is not as important as the child.

  • ASmom


    November 18th, 2011 at 1:41 AM

    “I reassured her that she needed to do what was right for her child and if that meant pissing off grandma, then so be it.” Woo hoo, Janeen! I wanted to stand up and applaud there when you said that. I was thinking the same thing as I was reading about that mom. As a mom with a son that has AS, I learned the hard way that’s what you’ve got to do sometimes. Please yourself and your son FIRST, not last, and do whatever works.

  • Jasmine Langley

    Jasmine Langley

    November 18th, 2011 at 3:21 AM

    One of the biggest hurdles isn’t the diagnosis imho. You can handle that once you get your bearings, recover from the shock, regroup and start learning. It’s dealing with ignorance from those you thought would support you most! I feel so bad for that mom having to deal with the mother-in-law like that. Sadly it’s all too common a story you’ll hear from moms of autistic children. Family can be worse than neighbors or schools in that respect.

  • aspiemother


    November 18th, 2011 at 3:52 AM

    When you have a child with autism, you can’t continue to be a people-pleaser if that’s your nature. 1, because as Janeen you said so well there, they do not understand that it’s not about them, and 2, because your child is going to annoy somebody with their behavior or their words. It’s inevitable and can happen on a daily basis, so much so that you don’t even notice it anymore. I have a standard apology that springs to my lips, like I’m one of Pavlov’s dogs hearing a bell ring, about three minutes into my son talking.

    Not that it’s the kid’s fault. Oh no! Unfortunately these adults cannot grasp that a child which may well look perfectly normal, as most with Asperger’s do like my son, has anything wrong with them that wouldn’t be resolved with discipline.

    They may or may not say it to your face but they secretly think that’s all the child needs. Ha! If only, eh autism moms!! Life would be so much simpler if that were true. They have no clue at all.

  • diana b.

    diana b.

    November 19th, 2011 at 2:20 AM

    That first bolded point is the most important. They’re autistic, not stupid. I can’t speak any French, but I know that the Quebecois woman in my street openly talks about me thinking I don’t understand what she’s saying. She’s right, I don’t, and I can’t communicate that to her. However I’m fully aware that she’s talking about me. It’s not the same as autism but it’s a pretty close analogy.

  • Myra McTavish

    Myra McTavish

    November 19th, 2011 at 2:32 AM

    Question re “the mother-in-law vs. a Thanksgiving where you retain your sanity” scenario. Where on earth’s the husband in all this? Why isn’t he talking to this mother about it and explaining their need for a quiet family Thanksgiving at home for once? There seems to be support sadly lacking from him in that respect too. I would be asking him to speak to his mother.

  • Joan W

    Joan W

    November 28th, 2013 at 4:23 AM

    When I read your question about why the father of the autistic child didn’t deal with his own mother, I was reminded of a training I attended about counseling families with a child on the spectrum. A common dynamic was cited where one parent takes over and the other takes off. While that may not entail desertion, it can be an emotional exit. Coupled with extended family expectations for traditional holidays, this can complicate an already stressful family dynamic. My heart goes out to families trying to balance ritual with reality. We need to adjust holidays to our needs in the bigger picture, not vice versa.

  • valerie t.

    valerie t.

    November 19th, 2011 at 2:40 AM

    Janeen, you are a breath of fresh air!! Thanks for an excellent article. It’s so refreshing to read an article on handling autism written by a professional who’s also a mother of an autistic child. The whole “been there, done that, bought the T-shirt” vibe shines through. What a relief to see I’m not alone or a crazy mom! :)

  • Claudette Adler

    Claudette Adler

    November 20th, 2011 at 10:45 PM

    @valerie t. :I hear ya. Sometimes I think my family will make me crazy one day! Mine think I’m “oversensitive about all this autism stuff” when I say anything about how they treat my Chloe- direct quote there from my brother. Oh, and he threw in “and it’s not just me that thinks so” for good measure. Talk about twisting the knife! If that’s what we’re up against from our nearest and dearest, no wonder strangers are such hard work.

    It’s so sad we have to win over our own kin to our side. Quite frankly, I expected better from mine. We were an intelligent brood and some of the rubbish they spout takes my breath away.

  • p. dunbar

    p. dunbar

    November 20th, 2011 at 11:10 PM

    The sensory overload issue is so misunderstood and yet crucial to understanding how we react the way we do sometimes. I myself have Asperger’s Syndrome, and I sometimes just want everyone and everything to go away, get off my back, and stay off it for at least a few minutes. I need quiet and I need solitude. When they don’t, my stress accumulates until I feel like seriously harming them to shut them up! I don’t but I feel like it.

    Autistics have a completely different way of handling stress from normal people but nobody gets it. I’m one of the hidden autistics that nobody spots at the start because I am articulate. I tell them freely I have AS but does anyone listen to me when I tell them to back off? No.

  • Nadia Singleton

    Nadia Singleton

    November 21st, 2011 at 12:14 AM

    I have a suggestion. Eat out at Thanksgiving in a place he’s familiar with and comfortable in. You can then enjoy what the day is supposed to represent instead of fretting over whether it will be peaceful or not and exhausting yourself with stress.

    That’s our plan and I don’t care if we end up in Burger King on the day! I’m letting the lad choose and being thankful for my son and who he is. He’s a joy in so many ways that parents of non-autistic children will never experience.

    Happy Thanksgiving when it comes! :)

  • B.V.C.


    November 21st, 2011 at 12:32 AM

    I have a daughter with autism who has hit students, teachers, aides, and other people in school when she gets pushed too far and goes into meltdown mode. I’ve told the teachers multiple times in verbally and in writing, even delivering the message personally at a school assembly in attempt to help the students understand what living with autism is like; the main thing to remember is you need to respect her personal space and give her room to breathe.

    I don’t care if the schoolteachers have a PhD in child psychology and their bookshelves are full of manuals-they do not know my daughter! Crowding her is not the answer. Respecting her difference and coping strategies is.

  • janeen


    November 22nd, 2011 at 9:39 AM

    Thank you so much for sharing your impressions, advice and comments. They are gratefully appreciated. Please let me know what other topics/issues you would like to see more articles about. I learn SO much from other parents who are “walking the walk”. Have a wonderful, outside-the-box Thanksgiving!

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