How to Have a Meltdown-Free Thanksgiving: Tips for Parents of Kids on the Spectrum

"My son with HFA does not do well with guests (and rarely seen family members) showing up at our house on Thanksgiving. Any helpful suggestions regarding how to make things run more smoothly this year?"

I'm glad you're thinking ahead. Prevention, prevention, prevention is key. If you have to intervene, it's often too late to circumvent behavioral issues.

Many parents of children with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism (HFA) experience difficulties, both with handling the sensory overload that comes with Thanksgiving events, and with understanding the deeper meanings of this special day.

The challenges of kids with an autism spectrum disorder - and the behaviors that result - can be mysterious for those who have had little experience with them (e.g., other family members). Most of these behaviors arise from differences in the ways that these kids experience, understand and interact with the world.

Most Aspergers and HFA children find it hard to understand the social and emotional meanings of language and nonverbal behavior (e.g., words about emotions or facial expressions, tones of voice that convey emotions, etc.). They also have a harder time understanding their own feelings, and those of others.

Many kids on the autism spcctrum are easily overwhelmed by sights, sounds and touch – and even by smells and tastes. As a method of protection, these kids may shut-out sensory information by withdrawing or absorbing themselves in repetitive behaviors or idiosyncratic interests, which can interfere with learning about their surroundings and connecting with the family members who care most about them. It can be painful for parents when their special needs child “disconnects,” which motivates many of them to move mountains to help their child learn to engage in relationships with them and others.

==> How To Prevent Meltdowns and Tantrums In Children With High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's

Adjusting to changes in routine or to new events and experiences is often a much bigger challenge for kids on the spectrum. Lights and music and special decorations that may be magical for other kids may lead these young people to panic, scream and run out of the room, or fall on the floor and thrash about. As with other transitions, limiting changes in routine and new sensations, and introducing them very gradually whenever possible, can help these kids begin to open up to them.

The youngster's behavior is “predictably unpredictable” during transitions. Over time, moms and dads learn what to expect. They learn how to prevent or shorten the frequency of meltdowns by preparing their youngster in advance, even rehearsing small bits of the new activities. Providing protection against too much stimulation and being sure that their son or daughter has access to favored toys and activities can also often help them to relax.

Still, moms and dads are bound to be on guard at times of heightened excitement. They know they may need to drop everything to try to help their youngster pull himself together again. Brothers and sisters of the child are often on guard, too – and may even be frightened. Often, siblings feel responsible and wish that they could make everything all better. Or they may feel guilty about their desire to have a “normal” family.

Moms and dads may feel all alone and without support as they raise a youngster with Aspergers or HFA. These feelings are bound to be intensified during Thanksgiving, when the challenges are often even greater and their youngster’s differences seem to stand out more. Having relatives and friends who don’t judge – and who really care and are eager to help – can make a big difference. Yet, it may be hard for those who have not had direct contact with the youngster to imagine what it’s like for parents and siblings when communication, social interaction and sensory processing are disrupted.

==> Parenting System that Significantly Reduces Defiant Behavior in Teens with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism

So how can families affected by an autism spectrum disorder get together for family functions in a way that is pleasing for everyone? Here are some tips:

1. As much as possible, attempt to stick to your youngster’s normal home routine on Thanksgiving Day (even though you may be entertaining guests later that day). As you get closer to the hour when guests will be arriving, make sure to prepare your youngster in advance for what is to come.

2. These kids need structure and routine. When Thanksgiving disrupts the usual schedule, the youngster can become anxious, depressed, and agitated. Minor incidents can turn into violent and explosive displays of anger. Visiting family members can make Thanksgiving easier by understanding the youngster's disorder and by doing whatever is necessary to support the mother and father.

3. Be sure to allow your child to have access to his special interests throughout the day (e.g., favorite toy, personal DVD player, iPod, etc.) to make him more comfortable. Also, if he displays “stimming” behaviors (i.e., repetitive behaviors like opening and closing a door, snapping his fingers, rocking back and forth, etc.), explain to your guests why it’s important to allow the youngster to continue the activity. These activities may bring comfort to kids on the spectrum, and help them cope with the changes around them. If others are uncomfortable with your child’s behavior, they can excuse themselves discreetly from the room if necessary, but don’t try to force the child to stop the behavior (unless it is overly-disruptive or rude).

4. Be sure to watch your child’s intake of sweets, sugar and caffeine during Thanksgiving Day, which can trigger anxious feelings and resultant meltdowns.

5. Changes to a daily routine, good or bad, can trigger a meltdown that is way out of proportion to the cause. Even a small and seemingly insignificant incident can result in a meltdown. The youngster may not respond well to decorating the home and having extended family over for Thanksgiving dinner. Thus, moms and dads should consider keeping Thanksgiving celebrations as low-key as possible.

==> Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management to Children and Teens with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

6. Focus on a few things that you know are important to make sure you have prepared around this time. Of course, some things may need modification so that it is possible to enjoy them with your youngster (e.g., if there is a danger of him hurting himself on fragile decorations, put them higher up and out of reach; some special foods may not be served; the child may need frequent time-outs from visiting family in order to de-stress).

7. Food can cause upsets and meltdowns from some HFA youngsters. If there is nothing served that your child enjoys, it can be upsetting and frustrating. Make sure to consider his diet and appetite during Thanksgiving, and don’t force him to indulge in typical Thanksgiving menus when he may not want to try new foods. This is not the time to force the youngster to eat new foods.

8. If you are stressed, your child will sense it. So stay calm and relax as much as possible so that you can enjoy yourself – and decrease your youngster’s anxiety.

9. In the days leading up to Thanksgiving, use role-play and rehearsal to let your youngster practice and learn how to deal with the upcoming social situations.

10. Lower your expectations of what you can really do. In this way, what you do will be less stressful and make Thanksgiving special.

11. Make the demands on yourself realistic, and don't try to do so much that you feel only frustration. Make realistic lists and work on things one at a time. Looking at Thanksgiving Day is less overwhelming if you take it in small pieces.

12. Many kids on the spectrum are sensitive to certain smells. If this is the case with your child, and you are visiting in another family member’s home, let them know ahead of time. Unscented products are usually preferable. These children may react negatively to candles and other smells. Be aware of what triggers problems for your youngster, and try to avoid them rather than handle them after an incident occurs.

13. Noise is a major problem for some of these kids. Minimize noise and allow your child to wear earplugs or use his iPod during large family gatherings if necessary. Keep music low, and avoid over-crowded rooms of people talking. Find a peaceful place for your child to go when the crowd grows and noise is high (e.g., a quiet bedroom, sunroom, dad’s office, etc.). A short rest with a snuggly blanket and quiet time can work wonders.

14. Take pictures of the family gathering and work with your youngster to make a book of pictures that can help him remember the things that you did. This can be used to prepare him for next year’s Thanksgiving celebration.

15. Watch for signs of over-stimulation before they escalate.

More resources for parents of children and teens with High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's:

==> Launching Adult Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism: Guide for Parents Who Want to Promote Self-Reliance

==> Parenting Children and Teens with High-Functioning Autism: Comprehensive Handbook

==> Unraveling The Mystery Behind Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism: Audio Book

==> Parenting System that Reduces Problematic Behavior in Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

Best Comment:
Really spot on advice. Holidays, large groups & any new stress is really tough for my son (& then for his sister who gets upset when he has a meltdown). Easy enough for us to understand the suggestions but how do you help extended family to understand that you're only trying to do the best you can for your child & not trying to make dinners & get togethers difficult. I've tried in the past to bring it up but it hasn't gone over well & has caused more of an issue. It can feel so isolating at those times. Lack of understanding makes an already tough time of year for him into a really hard time.

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