No matter which holiday you are preparing to celebrate, there are simple, easy things you can put in place to make the day go more successfully with your students or children on the spectrum. As with all structure and visual supports that you can offer individuals on the spectrum, these strategies are helpful for anyone and everyone! While beautifully printed, laminated, and Velcro-ed visuals are wonderful to have, often handwritten or quickly generated visuals do the trick. Remember that a simple visual is always better than no visual at all! Don’t worry too much about how nice your visuals look, just worry about if they are serving your child for the intended use. That being said, here are my top 10 tips for a successful holiday meal.
For most students on the spectrum (there are always exceptions), giving a healthy heads up for any major events is helpful. I love having a visual calendar on the refrigerator or posted in your child’s room. You can mark any upcoming events and count down as you prepare. The Autism Helper has an awesome set of calendars that can be used year round to prepare your students or children for holidays.
2. Social Stories
Social stories are my absolute favorite. (You may see them pop up in every one of my posts.) There are plenty of printable Thanksgiving social stories available, but you can also customize for your child or write them out on a whiteboard or sticky note in the moment. I always encourage my student’s parents to feel comfortable generating social stories in the moment to address issues as they come up.
3. Visual Supports
There are a wide variety of supports that you can offer based on what your child needs. You can have behavioral reminders, a sequence of the meal, or even reminders of family’s names! Just consider what they could be unsure about throughout the day or meal and offer a visual to support them!
I find labeling to be an easy way to decrease stress and anxiety. As most of us know, individuals on the spectrum are often picky eaters. Labeling foods in a way that makes them familiar or appealing could be helpful. Labeling seats at the table could also take the guess work out of where to sit. For some students, labeling necessary items with a label maker could be a fun and helpful task.
5. Environmental Supports
Any supports that you can provide your child to make the meal/day easier, are worth the time to ensure a successful holiday for all. It may be a plate that separates the foods, it could be a favorite character representation at the table, or a favorite fidget that they are not currently satiated on. Anything familiar that could add a sense of comfort on a day with many unfamiliar sights and sounds.
6. Social Scripts for Traditions
Often knowing the exact things to say can be stressful for our students on the spectrum, giving a script ahead of time or in the moment can be very helpful. You may offer a script for a prayer that you traditionally say around the table or a song that your family may sing to observe religious traditions. This could be a great time to consider Universal Design and offer a script for everyone in attendance. Taking the guesswork out of the words could help a variety of attendees.
7. Topics for Discussion and Possible Responses
Something that I have started doing for my own pre-teen (at his request), is to provide a list of conversation starters. He wants to be a part of the discussion but doesn’t always know what to bring up besides his own favorite topics (video games and Rick Riordan books). I offer a list of easy topics that are pretty universally easy to chat about. Another idea is to offer a script of responses for your child who wants to participate in the discussion but doesn’t always have the language to respond to other stories or jokes. Having a bank ready could alleviate pressure when there’s so much already going on at the table.
Having a schedule available for your child’s Thanksgiving Day could be very helpful on a day that is so unpredictable and out of the ordinary. It could be as simple or as complex as they need. As I try to do throughout my school day, I suggest going back and forth between a task that may require effort or discomfort and a desired activity. It is often advantageous to always have the proverbial carrot to dangle as a reinforcer for an undesired activity or period of the day. Frequently just knowing the order of events is comforting. Don’t we all love an agenda!
A strategy that I use just about all day, every day, that could be useful again during the holiday meal is the use of timers. iPads and iPhones have great visual timers standard. There are so many options out there for timers, from egg timers to dollar store baking timers. You could break down how long they will be expected to stay at the table or how long until family arrives (or leaves).
The overarching strategy of using a reinforcer at designated increments or after the entire meal is complete is frequently going to be successful. You could use a simple first/then chart or a more complex schedule of when a reinforcer will be able to be accessed. I personally will be using a reinforcer of a Disney+ movie after a potentially exhausting Thanksgiving Day.
Let me know if any of these strategies helped you in your holiday meal and bookmark these ideas for upcoming holidays!