How to Have a Sensory-Friendly Thanksgiving Dinner

It all began with an innocent piece of turkey on my plate on Thanksgiving when I was 11 years old.

I never really liked turkey but for the holidays prior, I was willing to drown it in gravy and hope for the best as I ate it.

But this particular Thanksgiving, try as I might, I could not get that turkey eaten. Four ladles of gravy, small bites and many glasses of water later, I still had not eaten it. I just could not tolerate the texture!

This officially began my serious issues with turkey. And sadly this issue made the Thanksgiving meal that most just adore, stressful. Because who doesn’t like turkey? I was asked so many times. Well… me! So my holiday involved some serious planning to survive the meal with as little attention as possible and still not starve.

So I offer this lovely story out to say that I had to plan for one small thing… so just think about the planning that goes into a holiday for our special needs children?!

Our daughter Elizabeth, who has Sensory Processing Disorder and Dyspraxia, is now 21 years old… so we have some serious holiday experiences behind us. Some successful, some not so much. But I thought I would share with you some things that we did and may still do to help the holiday be as positive and fun as possible.

  1. Talk to those hosting the holiday
    I found that simply hoping that something was going to be true at our cousin’s house, did not actually make it so. Instead, I started calling them and asking what they had planned for the menu, the seating arrangements and more. Honestly,I asked if they had cable hooked up or not. I kid you not, one time we arrived with no DVD player for Elizabeth to use to relax, only to find they had economized and gotten rid of cable! So Elizabeth had her choice of an infomercial, two football games or some English show on PBS. I will let you imagine how that went over!
    Really, finding out all you can will help you fill in the blanks for your child.
  2. Bring her favorite emergency snacks
    So you will not watch her stare at her plate when it is filled with turnips while you so wish you had brought her favorite emergency snacks.
  3. Talk to your child about what to expect
    Start the holiday talk early. And repeat often.
    I found that talking things through many times helped take Elizabeth’s anxiety down as her Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) would ramp up pretty easily when we talked about a big holiday party. The more she could mentally prepare for what she could expect, the better.
    She and I would talk about the “W’s” of the party.
    – Who will be there
    – Where we will go
    – What she will eat
    – When we will leave our house
    – When we will leave the host’s house
    I found writing it down on a chart for her to look at help also.
    Pretty much, anything you can do to keep your child in the “know” is so helpful for a successful holiday.
  4. Pack the bag together – include snacks, sensory break items, and some relaxing entertainment
    I know in the interest of time, it is SO very much easier to get things ready without the “help” of your child.
    But in this case, I found it is better to include your child. I found that having Elizabeth know what we packed for her food choices, sensory break items and her beloved DVD player and discs, made her feel calm and more in control for the day.
    So we would do some of it a day or two ahead of the holiday and finish it up that morning. Because that would give me another time to talk things through with her as we put in her tomato soup and goldfish crackers!
  5. Be open and honest with family members
    Tell them about your child’s needs! Tell them what he/she has, what they need, that they may need a break and where they will go to get that break. Tell them any and all things. Tell them that you know what you are talking about and to understand if you need to leave the table.
    I did not do this early on in Elizabeth’s life and may I say, those were some trying holiday moments!
    Be honest, that is the best way I can put it.
  6. Review, talk, and talk some more
    I know I may have mentioned the whole “talking” thing before but it really cannot be underestimated. Talk to your child about what expectations you have for them. Tell them what you hope they will be able to do today. But let them know that you will help them if they get overloaded and need a break.
  7. Let your child’s siblings know what to expect
    I also found it helpful to tell Elizabeth’s siblings about our plans for if and when Elizabeth got overloaded. This way, when I needed to help Elizabeth or John took her for a walk, it was not mistaken for a signal that dinner was over, and we then had all our kids up from the table, zipping up coats and heading for a walk too!
    Talking and shared expectations, in my opinion, are invaluable.

I know everyone will have their own twist to the ideas I shared but I hope they help you as you begin the journey into the “holiday season.”
(And by the way, I will be having a salad with chicken on it because I STILL do not like turkey ☺)

Michele Gianetti is a mom of three, registered nurse, and published author (“I Believe in You: A Mother and Daughter’s Special Journey,” “Emily’s Sister“). She writes for TalkTools Blog every month about her experience caring for Elizabeth, her daughter with Sensory Processing Disorder and Dyspraxia. Follow her story since the beginning here.

Talktool admin 20 Oct 18