Thanksgiving and Autism. The perfect recipe for chaos.
Last year, my husband’s extended family made an inaugural last minute out-of-town Thanksgiving adventure to a large vacation home in Kiawah Island.
For an autism child, there are about eight red flags in just that statement alone. If I could have been inside his head, this is probably what I would have heard:
- Last minute. What? Where are we going? Why? But Nona’s house is just fine.
- Extended Family. Ack! I have to be with them all day? They ask me so many questions! No one really even hangs with me. I can’t figure out how to interact with my cousins. They all talk so fast and loud, and, besides, no one really likes Legos or Star Wars. So many people talking at once!
- Unfamiliar coastal location. What will we do there? I don’t like to ride bikes. Where will I sleep? It is crowded. It is cold.
- How long will it take to get there? What will I do in the car? Where are we going again?
- Everyone left to go on their bikes. Wait, where did they go? What will they do when they get tired of riding bikes? Wait, where is my bike? This isn’t my bike. This rental bike doesn’t feel the same. Where did they go again? How do I get there?
- Nona just tried to get me to eat ham again. I hate ham. In fact, I hate all Thanksgiving food. Do we have any more rolls? I am so hungry. What is wrong with tacos at Thanksgiving? Those Pilgrims nearly starved, you know. I bet they wouldn’t have if they had eaten tacos.
Our 2016 extended family Thanksgiving adventure was a fabulous time for all but one. On Thanksgiving day as we are all about to sit down to eat, we found him sound asleep in his room.
A better plan this year
Determined to make this year a success for everyone, here are a few tips that we are trying this year:
- Be the host. We are hosting at our house this year, so he has a familiar space.
- Create a seating chart. We made a seating chart for the Thanksgiving table, with the nicest and most understanding cousin strategically placed next to mine. He gets the seat on the end so he is not squished in the middle of his brothers or the unfamiliar uncle.
- Include him in the menu. He hates Thanksgiving food and only eats rolls. So he is helping me make cornbread and his favorite dessert and at least he will eat something (rolls from scratch!) and feel a part of the preparation.
- Assign him a job. He wants to be included but the chaos forces him to retreat. He can collect fire wood for the fire pit or set the table, fill the glasses.
- Plan activities that he enjoys. He has helped me pick out several games and we will have them ready for before and after the big meal. Maybe the new fire pit will give him a job. What will he play if the cousins all play football? He can build a fire and he will at least be outside with everyone.
- Print out a schedule. This is so time intensive, but even a simple iCal print out of the next few days can offer great relief to someone who is secretly panicked over the upcoming chaos. I have put together a color-coded schedule of our Thanksgiving week, so he can know when the guests are arriving, when he will have his PS4 time, and when they will all go home.
- Allow him alone time. He has the freedom to retreat to his room when he gets tired of the chaos. He will have designated family time and earned retreat time
- Prep the in-laws. A brief little conversation with some to help them understand why all the noise and chaos is confusing. He will have a few other family advocates who will understand the importance of including him in conversation and engage him if he is starting to retreat.
- Keep you eye on signs of “fight or flight” response. Have a plan should he retreat and refuse to come out of his room.
- Serve tacos on Friday. With queso.