Autism-Friendly Holidays: Tips for an Autism- Friendly Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is all about food, family, fun, and football. When you have a child on the autism spectrum, the spontaneity, new foods and crowd of people can be overwhelming to deal with. If you want to make memories that you’ll remember fondly for years to come, you may need to think about your Thanksgiving ahead of time to get your child and family prepared to get through the day. An autism-friendly Thanksgiving that is fun for everyone won’t happen without you being proactive.

Preparation is Critical for an Autism-Friendly Thanksgiving

Don’t just spring Thanksgiving dinner with the family on your child. Let your child know that the holiday is coming up. Explain what will happen. Show your child pictures of family members who will be attending, especially the distant relatives that the child may not know very well. Talk about the behavior you expect. When your child on the spectrum has a better understanding of what to expect, you can have a better holiday. If you can visit the place where your family is holding dinner, it can help your child be more prepared.

Prepare Your Family to Meet & Greet Your Child with Autism

Prepare your family for your child. Let family members know if your child doesn’t want to hug, it’s not personal. Talk to your family about ways they can help your child have a more comfortable day. If the family doesn’t understand autism, it’s okay to start with the basics and describe your child’s specific needs. Highlight your child’s strengths to let your family know that your child is more than their autism. Share ways that your family can positively interact with your child.

Plan for Thanksgiving Travel Chaos

traveling for thanksgiving

You may need to plan ahead for flights on a plane or a long car ride. Roleplay getting on the airplane and going through security. Check your itinerary to know where the time gaps are and where you have to be prepared to push through quickly. Explain to the child what’s going on to make it easier for him to process the situation.

Let Your Child Enjoy Thanksgiving

Let your hosts know that you will bring some food items that your child likes. Assure them that it’s not personal. If your child isn’t into holiday attire, let them wear something comfortable. Dress for comfort. If your child wants to sit in the recliner and listen to music all day, allow him to do what works. Keep your expectations reasonable based on your child’s needs. Who says that everyone must participate in every activity?

Be Prepared for the Day

child with autism playing on ipad

Bring a bunch of distractions that you know your child enjoys. Charge the iPad. Pack the headphones. Make sure to have food and drink that your child will eat. Find a place where your child can escape or hide when things get too crazy. While you may do your best to plan an autism-friendly Thanksgiving, it is still critical to know your escape route if your child starts to have a meltdown. Have someone else close by who can help with distractions for when you need a break. Have a Plan B if you need to make a quick exit when it gets too much. Park the car for easy access and escape.

Keep to Your Routine as Much as Possible

Children on the autism spectrum tend to do better when their routine is followed. If your family plans to eat at 2 p.m., but your child normally eats at noon, it’s better to let your child eat at noon. Try to keep to the bedtime routine.

3 Tips For Managing Sensory Overload on the Holiday

Give your child a chance to adjust to new situations.

  • Arrive a little early to the celebration to give your child time to acclimate before the house fills up with guests. Don’t force your child to meet and greet people. If there is someone special that you want your child to meet, explain the significance but still let your child consent to interaction.
  • If you can let your child with autism explore the buffet before the other guests, this can let him or her test unknown foods in a calmer environment. The smells and textures of many Thanksgiving specific dishes can be off-putting to children with sensory issues. Make sure to tell your child that you have food you know she’ll eat if she can’t find anything on the table.
  • Set your child on the end of the table. Being squished between two people can be overwhelming. You may also want to let your child have a favorite toy at the table as a distraction. Of course, this could make other children jealous. You’ll need to have a ready response.

Praise Good Behavior

Positive reinforcement is encouraging for anyone. Using positive reinforcement focuses on what the child is doing right. Johnny Mercer sings, “you’ve got to accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative and latch on to the affirmative.” It helps your child recognize the value of her character, instead of linking the character to negative actions. Positive reinforcement works best when it happens often. The more you focus on the child’s good behavior, the more your child craves approval.

Relax and Enjoy an Autism-Friendly Thanksgiving

family celebrating an autism thanksgiving


It’s not easy to reduce your stress on Thanksgiving but give yourself a break. You don’t need to cook every item on the table yourself. Have a potluck dinner. Ask for help with your to-do list. Remember to enjoy the family time and to be thankful for your blessings. Your Thanksgiving doesn’t have to resemble a Hallmark movie. Make Thanksgiving traditions your own to have holiday memories for your family. Sometimes, you just have to go with the flow and make the best of things.

At the Carmen B. Pingree Autism Center of Learning, we are here to help you navigate and plan Autism-friendly holidays throughout the year. The Carmen B. Pingree Autism Center of Learning team is happy to help your child and family however we can. If you’re interested in learning more about our Center or if you want more tips for an autism-friendly Thanksgiving, please reach out to us!