Being thankful sounds so simple. In some ways it is. But it is also a conclusion that requires an assessment of value.
It is a decision.
Thanksgiving, or more specifically, thanksgiving celebrations can present challenges and experiences to be navigated.
It is often marked by a constellation of personalities, tasks to be completed, limited to no places to escape to and an
extended time frame. All of which can be stressful for someone with autism.
When my son was younger, travel at the holidays was accompanied by mixed feelings. He loves being with family,
but his ability to manage the necessary focus, interactions and expectations can only be accomplished if in the
appropriate dose. Something often not understood by others. At times, in those event settings, he was perceived
as without proper manners, or perhaps having permissive parents that allowed his retreat to aloneness or too much
television or video games. As his parents, we knew how difficult those settings could be and attempted to build
reasonable expectations. It was important to incorporate and support elements that could provide more confidence
and security in the foreign soil of these social interactions.
Key lessons we learned:
1. Figure out the most important time frame to be with the family. It doesn’t have to be the whole time. Have
a discussion with the person, be clear about that time frame, discuss opportunities for conversations,
validate listening and affirm their value as part of the family event. Honor that time frame – do not try to
extend if the person disengages. This clarity and structure help the person.
2. Identify activities or strategies to manage if the time of the event is lengthy. It might be taking a pet for a
walk. It might be identifying a quiet location where they can retreat. It may be suggesting the family go to
the movies after Thanksgiving dinner.
3. Bridge conversations. Sometimes conversations go too fast or are about things the person does not identify
with or they try to jump in but do so in a way that does not fit or is misunderstood by others. Find ways to
incorporate the person into the conversation where you know they would be secure in contributing. Our
effort to support extended engagement can impact that person’s duration in the conversation.
4. Recognize the role technology plays in their sense of security. It is not unusual for a person to use their
phone or video games to moderate discomfort when not sure what to do or when experiencing distress. At
home we can support them in developing a wider variety of strategies, but in an extended social
environment such as family Thanksgivings, that technology reliance may be a primary way of coping.
Conversations with the person about when it would not be appropriate – such as the dinner table – should
be had prior, but hard limits outside of those specific times should be avoided.
5. If at someone else’s home, be prepared to run the person home earlier or if out of town, to take them to the
hotel. You can return to the family event, allowing that person to have a bit of space.
6. Accept not everyone will understand. The truth is not everyone understands any given one of us.
Being thankful is a decision based on an assessment of value. The day is valuable to me. Opportunities to enjoy
time with others is valuable to me. My family is valuable to me. My children are valuable to me. Surely with these
decisions made, something good will happen.