Thanksgiving time and a child with autism

Thanksgiving is just around the corner. That means relatives who we haven’t seen all year will soon be arriving at our homes.

In some cases, it might be you who is doing the traveling to a faraway city. Maybe you are going to be staying with your siblings or parents this year.

The teacher remembers her own parents coming in for the festivities. Every year her mother loved cooking a strange vegetable called rutabaga. It was a family tradition and it stunk the house up. The teacher never liked that orange vegetable at all. Yet, every year it was placed on the holiday table because it was a tradition.

Most families have their own special foods during holidays such as Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and Thanksgiving.

This is the time of year when special holiday foods such as tamales, collard greens, empanadas, potato latkes, cranberry sauce and sweet potatoes appear on the table.

For children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), these next few weeks can be overwhelming.

New smells, new tastes, new sights and new sounds are everywhere. Routines are changed. Trees and special religious symbols suddenly appear in the house. The usual foods at the dinner table disappear. That poses a special challenges for the family.

The teacher knew the holidays were very hard for many of her children.

She liked when the annual swimming lessons around the holidays. Exercise, whether in the pool or on the playground, helped the children cope with ongoing changes.

So outside play was going to be encouraged if the weather permitted.

Plus, setting up the classroom to mirror the holidays also made the transition easier during the season both at school and at home. The children enjoyed the fun seasonal activities of learning to wrap Christmas presents and giving gifts.

October typically signaled the beginning of holidays in Room 623. Carved pumpkins and a talking raven would move on to turkeys and colorful leaf arrangements. Christmas music, a Christmas tree and a six foot Santa were in front of the room by early of November. Gradually, more and more holiday symbols and activities were added to help the children adjust to the ongoing changes in the community and at home.

New foods were also introduced. That helped the children get ready for the annual Thanksgiving and Christmas parties. Thanksgiving preparation included a time to taste traditional foods such as turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy, relish and pumpkin pies.

The annual winter holiday classroom party was a great time to introduce Santa along with the arrival of presents. It was also a good time to experience a large gathering of friends, family and strangers. New ethnic foods including tamales, pasole (a soup), and beans a la charra were part of the classroom menu.

The look on the children’s faces was always priceless when the parents, grandparents and siblings came into the classroom. Most of the children were thrilled to have their families there. Some students did not like the idea that they couldn’t go home right away. Others became upset when the Christmas gifts that Santa brought weren’t exactly what they had expected.

The annual event gave parents a great opportunity to work with their children on how to behave in a large group setting. This included eating new foods, waiting for Santa and interacting with new people.

Ideally, families who have children with ASD would have the time to practice and to prepare for the upcoming holiday season. The reality is we don’t always have time to gradually introduce the changes that come with Thanksgiving, Chanukah or Christmas. Yet, even a small amount of preparation can make a huge difference in making the holidays as calm and enjoyable as possible.

Pamela Gross Downing, a special education teacher can be reached at