Education and Counseling for Individuals Affected by Autism Spectrum Disorders


Helping Children on the Autism Spectrum to Cope with Thanksgiving

How was Thanksgiving last year? Did your “special needs” youngster handle the day with grace and gratitude, or did you see new behavior problems amidst the holiday hullabaloo? Witnessing more than the average amount of behavior problems during the "long" Thanksgiving weekend is not unusual, particularly when you spend the holiday with a lot of friends and family members.

As much as you may attempt to keep life consistent, Thanksgiving often disrupts the routine, causing sleep and meal disruptions. Your child usually (a) sleeps less soundly if he is not in his own bed, (b) goes to bed later than usual, (c) gets too much attention from family members, and (d) gets more sugar than usual. No matter the specific cause of the behavioral issues, you are left to deal with a youngster who is not himself. Whether he is showing behavior problems or attitude issues, your child is behaving uncharacteristically. This can confuse the most well-meaning mother or father.

What do you do with this youngster you don’t recognize? And how do you deal with behavior problems you have never encountered before? Here are some thoughts to help you weather the Thanksgiving storm:

1. As with any social occasion combining kids and grown-ups, be prepared to take your youngster with Asperger's (AS) or High-Functioning Autism (HFA) away from the larger group for one-on-one, calming down time if needed.

2. Moms and dads love to see their kids get excited about the Thanksgiving holiday, but there is a fine line between healthy excitement and disruptive over-stimulation. When that line is crossed and your AS or HFA youngster shows signs of "melting-down," be prepared to intervene quickly to help her calm down and get back in control.

3. When visiting family or friends, ask your host what activities are planned for the kids, and whether there is a quiet space your AS or HFA youngster can go when she is overwhelmed (or a place she can run around if she needs to blow off steam).

4. Moms and dads need to be flexible when making holiday plans for AS and HFA kids. Perhaps others can travel to where your youngster is, rather than requiring him to travel. If your youngster must do the traveling, try to allow enough time for two or more breaks during the day when he can get out of a moving vehicle to stretch and play. Take advantage of parks and playgrounds along your route. Many airports now offer indoor play areas as well. Once arrived at your destination, give your youngster the opportunity to explore his new surroundings before having to get dressed up or participate in a formal activity.

5. If your child doesn’t like to be touched, say to your family members something like, "My son doesn’t like to be hugged or kissed, but please don’t take it personally."

6. Why does it appear that your “special needs” child ramps-up his misbehavior over Thanksgiving? There are several justifiable reasons for this. Moms and dads want to make happy holiday memories with their kids, but holiday traditions are stressful for young people with AS and HFA. Holiday time usually means a complete change in your youngster's routine. School is often out, and there is no predictable rhythm to the day. Meals, homework time and bed time are all disrupted as families travel and gather together. Activities involve a lot of adult conversation, and outdoor weather can prevent needed movement and space for your youngster to burn off some pent-up energy. So, please keep these things in mind before you blow your top when your child "acts-out." Her behavior has more to do with over-stimulation and sensory sensitivities than willful misconduct.

7. Work with your hosts or other relatives to provide some indoor activities. A well-planned period of making arts and crafts or playing a simple board game can help everyone have a smoother and more enjoyable day.

8. Briefly describe your youngster’s special needs to your host (e.g., dietary restrictions, private space needed for timeouts, etc.). This will give your host the opportunity to prepare appropriately. A phone conversation may also provide you with helpful information, which will increase your own comfort level as you plan to attend a family get-together.

9. Try not to change your youngster's diet too much, in order to prevent tummy aches or other types of gastric distress.

10. Make sure you have access to appropriate clothing for local weather, and take your youngster outside for an extended period of play each day during your visit.

11. Limit sugar. Allow your youngster a Thanksgiving cookie or two, but not much more.

12. Limit food dyes.

13. Keep meals as consistent as possible, even if that means feeding your youngster before or after the main family meal. Set alerts on your phone for meals and snacks.

14. Keep bed and nap times as consistent as possible. It can be difficult to get your youngster to bed at her normal bedtime when so many others stay up hours later, but sleep is the top consideration when facing behavior and attitude problems.

15. Find multiple opportunities to verbally praise your child for behaving appropriately throughout the Thanksgiving weekend. If he's sitting quietly playing a video game -- it's "praise time" (e.g., "You're doing a great job of entertaining yourself").

16. Extra noise in an enclosed space can be overwhelming for AS and HFA children. Thanksgiving Day often has lots of people talking, kids running, background music playing, etc. This extra stimulus can be exhausting for your youngster to sift through in order to communicate. So, if possible, try to keep the noise and chaos to a reasonable minimum. If you are celebrating at home, designate your youngster’s bedroom as a safe “noise-free” place where he can retreat. If you are out at a friend’s or relative’s home (or a restaurant), ask if there is a quiet spot that your youngster can go to if necessary.

17. Consider your youngster’s personality. If he’s an introvert, give him some quiet, alone time.

18. Consider the youngster’s “love language.” If she thrives on words of encouragement from you and you spend all day talking to adult relatives, she may act up.

19. Keep your expectations realistic. When you sit down to make your plans for Thanksgiving, write out your “wish list” and then cut it in half. Many moms and dads sabotage themselves from the start by thinking that they can do it all. Lighten up on the things you think you need to do, and focus more on the things that you and your family want to do to add meaning to this special day. Don’t put too many demands on you or your child. Choose a few special things to do during the day, but be sure to plan for some down time as well.

20. If, despite your best efforts, your youngster shows behavior problems, act on them before they escalate. Deal with whining before it escalates into a tantrum. Deal with grumpiness before it turns into a fight with a family member. Deal with a noisy environment before you witness a meltdown. Keep your eye on your youngster, and quietly and politely excuse yourselves if you need to discipline him. Then commit to retraining him when you get home.

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