Tips for creating an autism-friendly Thanksgiving

Expert advice from a self-advocate and a behavioral expert

Tips for an autism-friendly Thanksgiving

While Thanksgiving is a time to reflect on your blessings and express gratitude for all the wonderful things in life, it can also be very stressful for people with autism and their families. In this Q&A, behavioral expert Arianna Esposito and self-advocate Anne Grego-Nagel, both of Autism Speaks, share their tips for making Thanksgiving an autism-friendly holiday with autistic individuals, parents of autistic children and their holiday hosts.

What is your advice to autistic individuals to cope with the holidays? 

Anne Grego-Nagel: It is hard to self-advocate when you are tired, so take time to recharge. I take the day after Thanksgiving off. I have no social events planned. I just give myself permission to be quiet and recharge.

Second, set internal boundaries before going into a family celebration. For example, I reserve the right to walk away from emotional conversations without saying anything. Once someone starts yelling or acting aggressively, we are out of the boundaries of respect I demand in interactions. Setting up boundaries before I enter a situation gives me guidance on when to leave. 

Third, identify your allies and let them help you self-advocate. Allies are really important. In family situations, my allies explain to others how autism affects my interactions. They don’t defend bad behavior, but they limit the judgment among other family members.

Lastly, when there is a lot of social interaction, I rely more heavily on literal language and straight-forward requests. My brain is dealing with so much that becoming literal or asking for explicit information helps me deal with expectations. Part of self-advocating is managing others’ expectations of me.

What are some of the biggest challenges that autistic people face during Thanksgiving?

Arianna Esposito: People with autism often struggle with changes in routine that come during the holidays. School-aged children experience a disruption in school services during this time. Wraparound services like in-home therapies might also be affected. Depending on how a family celebrates, there may also be changes in food options, guests in the home and access to certain cherished belongings — not to mention a potential lack of privacy. There’s an unfamiliarity to these changes in routine that can be really stressful and overwhelming for those on the spectrum.

How can people with autism and their families prepare for the holiday festivities?

AE: It’s very important to plan ahead. Parents of a child with autism should start by talking to them about how Thanksgiving will be different from their normal Thursday routine. If you’re going somewhere for the holidays, think about ways you can bring elements of home with you. That can be a favorite piece of travel-sized furniture (like a beanbag), a puzzle or a calming item like a tablet, fidget spinner or stress ball. Make sure you bring a go-to bag of your child’s preferred activities and sensory items wherever you go. If your child has a special interest, like videos or games, bringing those can help them stay happy and occupied.

The second thing to consider is that some autistic individuals may be picky eaters or have a more restrictive diet. They may not like turkey or traditional Thanksgiving foods. So it’s important to prepare the specific foods that your loved one will eat. If somebody else is hosting dinner, let them know in advance that you may bring some of your own food. Sometimes seeing a familiar meal in a familiar container can be a source of comfort for people with autism.

Communicating using words can be very stressful for some people with autism... instead of talking, you could play a game or do a shared activity.

How can extended family help their loved ones with autism cope with social anxiety during the holidays?

AE: Caregivers, relatives and friends should pay close attention to how the autistic individual is feeling. Communicating using words can be very stressful for some people with autism, so it’s important that family members meet them where they are and respect their communication preferences. If the autistic person appears uncomfortable, don’t force them to stay in a certain room, engage in a conversation, or pose for pictures. Understand that there are other ways to build a connection. For instance, instead of talking, you could play a game or do a shared activity. The best tradition is just being together. But do not put a limit on how much time your autistic individual or their family must spend with you. Make it about quality, not quantity.

How can holiday hosts help their guests with autism and their families cope with social anxiety during the holidays?

AE: For those who are hosting Thanksgiving, it’s important to understand that the way your autistic guest enjoys Thanksgiving may be a little different than how you enjoy it. Do not take that personally or consider it impolite. Instead, remember that your home is a new environment for them and that your traditions may not be theirs. If possible, offer them an option for a quiet, comfortable space away from high traffic areas where they can relax. Or, let them know it is ok if they need to step outside or go for a walk to recharge. It could also be mutually beneficial if you communicate what to expect ahead of time -- the timing of the main meal, the number of guests attending, the general menu. It is not only an opportunity for that person and their family to prepare for the occasion but it is an opening for them to give you a head's up if they have to go off menu, leave at a certain time, or not partake in a certain tradition.