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Autism Thanksgiving – what does that look like?
In some families, Thanksgiving is about dressing up, sweeping any and all conflicts under the rug, and eating a fancy meal off the “good” China. In other families, the focus is on sweat pants and (turkey) smokers, turkey trots and (American) football. It is often a day of (warm) chaos, (loud) conversations, and (routine-breaking) holiday traditions. In other words, autism Thanksgiving can be an autism nightmare.
In many special needs families, Thanksgiving is a day without therapy, in a week with no school. A day in which menu deviations have less to do with which aunt or grandma is dictating the menu, and more to do with food intolerances – or strong preferences. It is a day that highlights how little even our close friends and family understand our day-to-day realities.
The Gratitude of Autism Thanksgiving
But it is also a day that allows us to be grateful for the time and space we do have – together. Thankful for the food that graces the table- even the somewhat out-of-place pickles or mini-bagels. And downright celebratory about the single photo, in a tagless shirt, in which everyone is at least vaguely looking at the camera (oh, and the ability to crop out the unsightly pants – or lack thereof entirely- is utterly brilliant).
So how do you make autism Thanksgiving manageable? You make accommodations.
Accommodation #1: Stay Home
Remove a huge variable from the day by offering to host at your place. That way your special needs family member can avoid travel, unfamiliar places, and unanticipated concerns – like unfenced pools or ponds, less-than-welcoming pets, or unusual smells – or sofas. Yes, the goal is to build skills and be able to tolerate these differences, but there is enough different (different foods, different people, different schedule) on a holiday to deal with for one day.
Accommodation #2: Separate
Take a cue from months of quarantine and eat outside, if weather permits. That way you minimize loud conversation in enclosed areas, and maximize the ability of your loved one with special needs to take a break inside. Too cold for that? Create several smaller dining areas, rather than one giant one (you can’t really hear anyone that is 10 seats away, anyway!) to allow for a more moderate volume. And always make sure your family member with special needs can escape to their own room or space easily.
Accommodation #3: Strategize the Menu
Don’t be shy about serving some items deconstructed – like vegetables with dips or sauces on the side, rolls or bread that are dairy- and/or gluten-free, and mashed potatoes not covered with cheese or herbs or gravy. And if your loved one with special needs has a favorite item – find a way to make that part of the meal – whether it be some dill pickle spears on the crudité plate, or some favorite chips next to the artichoke dip, or a no-fail dessert option like chocolate chip cookies.
Accommodation #4: Shift your Expectations
If you have reasonable expectations it can be a good- even great – day. If you love to cook, then choose a few of your favorites and get them on the table. Winning. Football fan? Put on a game in a room near a swing, trampoline, or bean bag that will entice your family member to join you. Touchdown. Focused on catching up with family and friends? Pour a glass or mug of something delicious and let your loved one run in circles around you.
And that is the best autism Thanksgiving, accommodated.
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