Tips for a Sensory-Friendly Thanksgiving

If you’re anything like me, you would swear that just yesterday it was August and then you woke up last week and realized that it was November and that means – holidays are coming! In fact, as I look at the date as I’m writing this post, Thanksgiving is only 3 weeks away! Thanksgiving is a holiday many associate with football, parades, food and more food! Under the best of circumstances, it can be a bit stressful and if your child has a sensory processing disorder, it can even be downright overwhelming. The following are some tips to help the whole family enjoy the holidays – although we haven’t really figured out what to do about weird Aunt Edna’s visit – you’re just going to have to muddle through that one!  

Ultimately, what I think are the best predictors of success for any holiday are open communication and boundaries and this applies to anyone by the way, not just those with children with special needs.  It’s taken me a longgggg time to realize that you truly can’t keep everyone happy and this is especially true at the holidays. You know what’s best for your kids and your family and if that 6-hour drive to spend the holidays at your second cousin’s/boyfriend’s/sister’s house is not for you, then you can tell them I gave you permission to decline! However, if you do truly want to connect with family out of town or are just planning on attending a meal outside your home, here are some ideas for you:

Tips for Travel/Eating Outside of Home

  • We’ve already shared some helpful travel tips for kids with special needs – now granted this was written in summer, so there are some extra considerations in fall and winter, like possible weather delays and extra items you might want to pack if driving!
  • Before heading out either on your trip or over to a friends, try creating a social story with your child to help set the stage on what to expect. If you’re traveling, you can incorporate maps into the discussion and show your child where you will be headed, perhaps some pictures of who will be there or a video explaining the holiday and types of foods they might expect.
  • Have a conversation with your host in advance and don’t be afraid to explain what would be helpful – most people will want to accommodate (besides weird Aunt Edna!)
  • Don’t be afraid to bring some ‘safe’ foods that you know your child will eat or explain that you’ll only be giving them small portions and that you’d appreciate it if there wasn’t any pressure to eat more (what is it with that side of the family and their stuffing eating contest!?)
  • Ask if there is a quiet space you can take your child for a timeout if the environment is too noisy. I used to do this when my kids were babies, and it was honestly me who needed the timeout the most! Noise cancelling ear phones can also be a helpful tool if there’s truly nowhere to go that isn’t loud or crowded.
  • Bring a sensory kit, filled with things your child likes from home that are both familiar and comforting. Perhaps a weighted blanket or a lovey as well that can be used in that quiet space you’re going to find. 
  • Be prepared to leave when it’s time – don’t worry about offending your host or judgey Uncle Bob, when it’s time to go, it’s time to go! Maybe drive two cars if other family members haven’t gotten all of their turkey and football time in yet.

Tips for a Celebration at Home

Maybe you’re doing the hosting this year, which can be less complicated in some ways, but also has its own set of considerations!  At least you’re in your own environment and don’t have to worry about forgetting to pack that one toy or blanket that prevents meltdowns, but you’re also possibly hosting people who may or may not understand sensory challenges and who may or may not pick up on cues that it’s time to go!

Some of what was shared above still applies at home, but here are some other ideas:

  • Have your child help get ready for the celebration – meal prep or planning, setting the table, maybe drawing some pictures that could be used to decorate the room.
  • To help diffuse stress before it starts, talk about expectations and rules for the table in advance of the meal – and perhaps have your child at a seat near you so you can quietly reinforce them if needed.
  • Give some cues before the meal begins – a five-minute warning that the meal is about to be served and then ask them to wash hands before coming to the table. This helps to focus on a task separate from eating to keep your child calm.
  • Know your child’s sensory triggers? Try and have things in place to help your child regulated.
  • Favorite essential oil or scent on wrist for a quick smell if other scents are bothersome.
  • Music in the background of the sound of people chewing is an issue (I admit – this is a big one for me!)
  • Have conversation starters at each place setting to help decrease the talk of only food.
  • Quick walk outside or a game of football to get some energy out before sitting at the table.

I think the biggest thing we can all do to give ourselves a break is to get rid of the idea of a ‘perfect’ holiday. I think maybe Hallmark movies have us all brainwashed that a holiday should look and be a certain way to be a success. I won’t tell you that it’s just a time to feel grateful and that you shouldn’t sweat the small stuff because if you’re like me, that starts me worrying that I’m not grateful enough and then I start to feel bad about that, BUT I will give you all the permission you need to have the kind of holiday that is meaningful to your family and to set your boundaries with family and friends to ensure you’re able to enjoy this season (and maybe a few pieces of pie!)


Consumer Reports 8 –

Sensory Processing Disorder Parent Support  –

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