Autism: Preparing for Thanksgiving Dinner

Americans go overboard about holidays and Thanksgiving is no exception. If a little is good, a lot is much better. If six relatives are just right for dinner, we tend to invite a dozen, for an all out, no holds-barred T
hanksgiving extravaganza, with a 22 pound roast turkey, with bread, celery, onion stuffing with sage and thyme, mashed potatoes and gravy, baked sweet potatoes with marshmallows on top, cranberry sauce, green beans with sliced almonds, Waldorf salad, hot rolls, carrot cake, apple and cherry pie with Hagen Daz white chocolate raspberry truffle ice cream and whipped cream on top. In America, we pull out all stops, spend an enormous amount of money, and in the process, send our kids on the autism spectrum into a tizzy. So this year, maybe we can avoid upsetting our kids so much, just maybe.

About.Com Autism Spectrum Disorders has provided some helpful tips, which I’ve modified below based on my own experience.

It is a great idea to prepare your child for the big Thanksgiving dinner by involving them in selecting food at the supermarket and in preparing the meal. Begin by showing them a picture book of a Thanksgiving dinner and talking about the ingredients. If your child is verbal, ask her or him to help create a shopping list and picking out the items at the supermarket., which could take the form of a visual schedule/task list. The more they are involved in the preparation, the more engaged they will be during Thanksgiving dinner, including receiving praise for helping with the dinner from relatives.

Many people with autism find large gatherings difficult. They may also dislike certain foods, like me, and pumpkin pie. Chances are s/he may like hotdogs better than turkey with gravy and jello more than apple pie. Try to be flexible, and offer some of the child’s preferred foods along with traditional Thanksgiving fare. Explain to grandma in advance that it isn’t an insult if your child with autism doesn’t want to eat her baked squash with brown sugar and butter on top.

Some people with autism may engage in repetitive behavior such as rocking or hand-flapping during during the Thanksgiving meal, which can be embarrassing if people have never seen such unusual behavior before. If you're inviting guests who don't know your loved one with autism, it is in everyone's best interest to prepare them. Explain any quirks that might be off-putting or confusing. Suggest ideas for how to promote positive interactions ("Jimmy really loves trains - maybe you could bring some photos of your model layout!"). Discourage rough-housing with cousins and friends’ kids, which might temporarily captivate your child, but can very easily lead to
a tantrum and meltdown.

An absolute must in planning for a big family gathering is a designated space to get away. If a person with autism needs a getaway, prepare one before the big day. Some ideas: set up a quiet bedroom or study with familiar toys, videos, books or and a CD player with preferred music, preferably quiet music. If the child likes to dr
Boy with Headphones pic
aw, include coloring books and inexpensive lined paper with erasable crayons. Discourage gross motor activities, like tag, tossing a ball, or mini-trampoline, that often cause over-excitement and may make self-stimulation worse.

Most people with autism dislike surprises and new settings. If you're traveling to a new or seldom visited place with your loved one with autism, photos can help prepare. What will the house look like? How about the dining room, get a picture of that too. Who will be there? Show the youngster pictures of Grandma and Grandpa and the Aunt and Uncle they haven’t seen for a long time, and his little cousins. Where will he sit? If there's a special quiet space, what will that look like?

Before you go (or welcome guests to your own home), use photos and other communication tools to help you discuss what will happen, what's expected, and how to manage tricky moments
. A visual schedule can be very helpful to the youngster so he understands the sequence of events from the time of arrival to going home. The night before the Thanksgiving dinner, review the sequence with the child and ask her/him from time to time, “What will we do next?” For many kids with autism, pictures work better than verbal schedules.

If you have a young child with autism, mom and dad need to agree about how long the child must they stay at the table? Where should they go if they feel overwhelmed? Must they share toys? What if they aren't having fun? How should they ask to leave? If they need a special PECs or other Icon, have it placed near their plate at the table so they can use it if necessary.
Better to honor your child’s request to take a break for awhile, than have a huge blow out at the dinner table.

Even with the world's best planning, Thanksgiving can be ... just too much. Discuss with relatives and friends what "too much" might look like, and how you'll handle it. That way, if your loved one with autism simply melts down, you'll be able to handle the situation with calm and grace (or at least without having a meltdown yourself).

Autism Speaks Provides Some Thanksgiving Activities

Here are a few activities and resources that can help your child better understand and enjoy the Thanksgiving holiday.

here for a Thanksgiving Social Story from Slater Software.

here for some Thanksgiving coloring sheets.

here for a Thanksgiving Book for your child to fill in information about your family, the food you will eat, and what he or she is thankful for.

My Own Thoughts on Eating Out on Thanksgiving

My first thought about eating out on Thanksgiving with a child with autism, is
don’t do it if at all possible. On the other hand, increasing numbers of families eat out on Thanksgiving, especially when both parents have jobs outside the home and have very busy schedules. Eating out can actually be fun, if it’s the right restaurant, under the right conditions, but basically you have to follow the same rules as at home.

Scope out the restaurant in advance, and if you can g
et a reservation in a more isolated area of the restaurant, by all means do so. If the restaurant has a photo menu, beg to get a copy you can take home and photocopy, or cut up for preparing your child.

Consider an Unorthodox Restaurant: Depending on how traditional your family is, it can be fun to have Thanksgiving dinner at an unorthodox restaurant that may serve meals more quickly and might be less crowded, such as an Asian or Middle Eastern restaurant. Don’t rule out a pancake house that might be offering Thanksgiving specials, like omelets with turkey sausage or waffles with cranberry syrup. Obviously you need to make certain there are menu choices your child will like.

Avoid Buffets: If there is a self-service buffet, sit as far away from it as possible to reduce your child’s running over to the buffet repeatedly, stepping in front of people, while stuffing food in his mouth, and grabbing food and running.

Plan Meal Choices: As indicated above, try to get a copy of the menu in advance and show your child the choices. Plan exactly what he will select for his dinner. Discuss each option with him, and honor his choices as much as possible. Again, don’t be shocked if she prefers chicken fingers, French fries and a fruit salad for dessert, to typical Thanksgiving food.

Plan for Waiting: On holidays there can be long waits at restaurants, even with reservations. That may mean waiting BEFORE being seated, and again BEFORE being served. Most parents know the drill. Bring some crackers and fruit slices in a baggie to munch on while waiting for dinner. Bring a sippy-cup or portable drink container with some of her/his favorite drink so he/she can have sips while waiting. Space out the snacks as long as possible. In your restaurant pack, include paper, coloring book and crayons and a favorite hand-held video game to play while w
aiting. If your child especially enjoys music, bring a small CD player and ear buds.

Go for walks. Before your child has an all out meltdown, take her or him for a walk. Most parents have a designated walker who agrees in advance to be first to take
the child for a walk. Ideally, it should be the parent who is least frazzled. Some restaurants have appealing things to see, like an aquarium, a lobster tank, a pond with goldfish, photographs, etc. If the weather is tolerable, go for a walk outdoors, and keep your child busy pointing things out and talking about them as you walk. Its amazing how many red cars you can count in a parking lot. The idea is to distract him and keep him engaged.

Have an escape plan. If all else fails, and the dinner turns into a screaming, on the floor kicking and flailing fiasco, you have two choices. The better, if you can work it out, is for one parent to leave immediately with the child with autism and take him home. Decide in advance, if necessary, how you plan to leave the restaurant, i.e. where you will walk to avoid your child’s kicking people or knocking over serving trays, and which door you will use to exit. The other parent needs t
o reassure the waiter that you will pay for all of the food, including for the parent and child who left. The other parent and kids can finish their dinner at a leisurely pace and head home after dessert. Try to make the conversation pleasant as possible for the remaining kids. In the first case, the parent who has gone home will need to return to pick up the remaining parent and kids at the restaurant. For this reason, some families drive two cars to the restaurant, just in case.

The other option is for a single parent or both parents to leave. This is hard on the other kids, but sometimes is the only option. If you have time, ask the waiter to put the kids’ meals in plastic containers as you pay the bill, and before you leave, and have the dinner at home.

When you arrive at home you will be very frustrated and angry. You will feel your blood pressure rising and your jaw and fists clenched. You will feel terrible for disappointing the other kids and sense an intense urge to scold your child with autism and give him a stern talking-to about how to behave in public, and tell him “He knows better.” You will want to mete out a penalty, like time out in his room, or no video games for the next day or week. You may even feel like spanking him.

Don’t do any of those things. While the situation was extremely upsetting, it wasn’t the end of the world. Your child didn’t enjoy having a meltdown, or choose to do so out of desire to cause pain for her or his family. He didn’t willfully decide to ruin everyone’s Thanksgiving dinner, even though it might feel that way. Somewhere along the way some mistakes were made, which you will devote some time later to figuring out. Take a deep breath, exhale slowly and try to create a sense of calm by talking in a level, gentle tone of voice. Get all of the kids engaged in low-key entertaining activities like a board game or building a puzzle, and when everyone has settled down, ask your spouse to watch the gang while you go down to the basement and beat the living day lights out of the punching bag, unmercifully, and without stopping for a half hour. Come back upstairs, take two tylenol, sit down in your favorite chair and slowly drink a beer or glass of wine, and then try to resu
me living as though the world hadn’t just collapsed around you, which is probably the way it feels.

The following day, you and your spouse should get together and analyze as best you can, exactly what led to the meltdown. Did your child have to wait too long past his usual meal time before the food came? Was the noise level to loud? Did he have expectations about how things would happen, such as preferred food, that weren’t consistent with what really happened? Once you have done the debriefing, you’ll be in a better position to prevent a repeat next time. You will also feel less angry about what happened, because you will realize it happened for a reason.

Final Thoughts: Thanksgiving family gatherings can be great fun for your child with autism and free of fiascos with adequate planning. Simplify, Simplify! Try to reduce the number of items you will be preparing for dinner and consider purchasing a couple of items at the nearby supermarket deli, such as the dressing, cranberry sauce/relish, sweet potatoes and baked pie. Yes, it will cost a little, but your mental well-being is probably worth it. Don’t have unrealistic expectations for your child with ASD, but try to avoid expecting the worst will happen either. If you appear tense and on pins and needles, your child will likely react to your own apprehension. Allow time before and during the dinner to spend with your child one to one, and as much as possible, involve him in what you are doing. That will mean your spouse, another relative or friend may have to assist with more of the routine duties. Be sure to take photos while your child is helping prepare the dinner and during the meal, that you will all be able to enjoy later to remind her or him how much fun it was. Photos of having fun with Grandma or cousins are great helps in remembering the good times. Have a happy Turkey Day!