Updated: Mar 1, 2022
What should you do for Thanksgiving or another family gathering with a loved one with autism?
I know Thanksgiving is tomorrow and this tip fits Thanksgiving or any major family gathering. I've learned these things along the way but trust me I'm fumbled in the dark. At this family gathering in Turkey alone I couldn't have failed, my son, more by not realizing that he needed a space to take a break and be away from all of us.
I now know that he can only handle so many family gatherings and he needs better support from me when he starts to get overstimulated. Often times when I visit family and friends for big gatherings like this I advocate for my son. I know he will feel comfortable at his grandparent's house since that's a familiar place for him and his things are all already there. The key is to make him as comfortable as possible. Of course, we all want to spend family gatherings socializing and catching up but we have to remember that our loved one still has autism regardless of who they are around. With this in mind, I have some tips to help you make your next family gathering easier to handle.
⭕ My first tip for a family gathering is to ask to keep that gathering at a familiar place like your own home, the grandparents, familiar friend or family members home, etc. I've expressed that it just makes it easier for my child to step away when he needs to.
⭕ If meeting at the gathering is not possible at a familiar place then pack your child's favorite sensory toys and games to keep them happy and the stimuli low because in a later tip I'll tell you what I do with those toys.
⭕ Find a quiet place in the home whether it is your home or an unfamiliar home. Everyone should be willing to work with you. Give your child the space they need and find them a place that is low sensory so that they can play with you or a loved one that is familiar in peace and quiet.
⭕ Dress in comfortable clothes and bring a change of clothing if it is necessary to be dressed for pictures or dinner. This is a no brainer and a lesson I learned the hard way. My son likes to wear sweats and be comfortable. My family in Turkey...well they love you dressed nicely and I know for another trip there I'll make sure to find fabrics that are "dressed" looking or just bring him in clothes he is comfortable in and forget the rest. No one is going to die because your child wants to be comfortable.
⭕ Bring food that you know your child will eat! While the Thanksgiving meal is a favorite for many of us, not all children on the autism spectrum enjoy turkey with all the trimmings. This will be one less issue to contend with. My son won't eat meat or if he does it will take hours because he is trying to escape eating meat. In this regard, I'll now bring something for him to eat that I can cook while the rest of the meal is being prepped. If your child only eats chicken nuggets and fries 𝐁𝐑𝐈𝐍𝐆 𝐓𝐇𝐄 𝐂𝐇𝐈𝐂𝐊𝐄𝐍 𝐍𝐔𝐆𝐆𝐄𝐓𝐒 𝐀𝐍𝐃 𝐅𝐑𝐈𝐄𝐒 it's okay, you got this!
⭕ Will your child be able to sit at the dinner table for a long time? Mention to your host that your child may not be able to sit for so long and ask if he or she can be excused early.
⭕ Plan an exit strategy. You know how long your child will last at a gathering like this. Plan to leave early or take them out of the space so they can come down from the stimuli.
I also highly recommend prepping for the family gathering with things like YouTube videos of large families enjoying a meal together or reading books on the same topic. Especially, with a higher functioning child, you will be able to enter a dialog explaining with them what to expect. I build up hype for my son too so that he is excited by the event but I also remind him that he has the freedom to step out of the room if things are uncomfortable and of course I'll be there for him. I will also cook foods that could be served at the family gathering to help my son acclimate to new textures or determine if he will eat any of the foods. It's a work in progress always and if he isn't willing then I go back up to bringing food along with us.
Make sure to talk to the persons you'll be going to their home so that they can be prepared as well. I voice my concerns and I let them know that we might have to leave in the event that things are too overstimulating for my son or to coordinate a quiet space for him. Making them aware and a part of your team is a saving grace. Don't be afraid to talk to them!
These are just a few of my tips to help you have an autism-friendly family gathering. If you need more ideas subscribe to my newsletter where I send weekly tips on planning an autism-friendly vacation with me as well as other tips to make vacation planning easier.