The holiday countdown has begun. Invitations have been extended and preparations are in full swing.
For many families, it’s custom to gather together for a special holiday meal. For children with autism, a holiday meal — from sitting at a table to the texture and taste of various foods — can be quite overwhelming. How can you help your child prepare?
Here are some guidelines to help children and families with ASD prepare for that special meal:
What’s on the agenda? Before you do anything else, determine what the day will hold. If you are not hosting the holiday meal, inquire with your host as to what is on the menu and whether it will be a sit-down or buffet-style meal. Then, set up a visual schedule for your child. This is appropriate for both younger and older children, and is used to preview the events of the day so that your child will know what is going to occur. The visual schedule can have pictures, text, or both. Pictures are generally used with both younger and older children. However, if your child is older, able to read, and doesn’t require a picture to inform them about the day, he or she may feel more comfortable with a schedule with only words as they may find the pictures unnecessary. Consider using photos you already have to create a visual schedule, or you may be able to find food and related images on the Internet.
A social narrative would also be appropriate. A social narrative includes pictures and text that tells a story about the day. The story can be read to your child, or your child can listen and follow along or read the story aloud with you, in a preview of the upcoming events. What’s the environment going to be? Who is going to be there? About one-to-two weeks in advance, start reviewing your visual schedule or social narrative with your child each day, including on the day of the event.
Table time. If you would like your child to participate in the holiday meal and your child does not currently sit at a table at mealtime, then you’ll need to start rehearsing sitting at a table well in advance. Your child may also have to get used to having food on a plate in front of him or her. Practice each day, and gradually increase the increments of time sitting at a table.
If your child cannot vocalize what they want, be sure to use picture/text cards during practice and bring them to the holiday meal. This way, your child can point out what they would like, such as more potatoes or another dinner roll.
Unfamiliar food. Although the main course may not be truly exotic, new flavors and textures of foods that are unfamiliar to your child may be well outside their comfort zone. Introduce these new foods to your child days or weeks prior to the holiday meal. Encourage your child to touch and smell the food first. If your child does taste it and doesn’t like it, or refuses to taste it, opt for a food that is close to what will be served at the holiday meal, but with a texture that is acceptable to your child. For example, if your child does not like roast turkey, then opt to serve your child a different texture of the same food, such as deli turkey.
Bring your own plate. If your child is able to adjust to new foods in advance, that’s great. If not, don’t stress about it. Pack up foods they like and bring the items with you to the dinner. Be sure to include plates and utensils that they are used to, as well.
Scents and sensory overload. Although the scent of cinnamon, pumpkin, roast beef, turkey or seafood may be familiar to you – these and other food aromas may be new to your child. If possible, cook a mock meal of the foods that will be served. Roast turkey on the menu? Check with your local supermarket as they may carry a rotisserie turkey which you could use for your mock meal. Look for candles, scented markers or stickers with the scents of various foods so your child can get used to them and they are not overwhelming, but familiar and identifiable.
Eliminate the wait. Is there a children’s table or will everyone be seated at the same table? Determine in advance where your child will sit. To minimize waiting while everyone comes to the table and is served, seat your child last and have their plate ready to go. Seat your child at the end of the table if possible, to ensure that your child does not feel confined (sandwiched between other guests at the table) and to enable your child a quick escape if he/she becomes overwhelmed by noise, aromas and more.
Address sensory needs. If you want to keep your child at the table longer, be sure to bring a “busy bag” of items and activities to address sensory needs. Your child’s busy bag may include a squishy ball, stuffed animal or blanket, coloring books, toys that light up, electronics along with headphones to use while accessing the device or to block out noise overall if it is an issue. Try not expect more from your child simply because it is a holiday. Figure out in advance how long your child can tolerate being at the table before reaching his/her threshold.
Quiet space. Identify a calm, quiet place in the house ahead of time to enable your child to get away from the smell of food as well as the crowd and noise. For example, you may be able to get your child to sit at grandma’s table, exchange a few words and eat what he/she can, and then allow him/her to go to that designated quiet area.
Dressing for the holiday meal. Is the entire family dressing up for a holiday photo prior to the meal? In addition to all the other stimuli, the clothes your child wears can set the tone for the entire day. If you want your child to wear a new outfit, then he/she should practice wearing it in advance, every day if necessary. Make sure it is comfortable and bring a change of clothing that is familiar, just in case.
Preparation is key and involves planning well in advance, from several weeks to months ahead, depending on what you are looking to achieve. Take it slow and work on these various activities each day with your child so they become familiar and predictable, as doing so will contribute to the overall success of the day.
Kerry McCrea MS, BCBA, LABA is the Assistant Clinical Director of Specialty Early Intervention Services at Behavioral Concepts (BCI), a company of behavioral clinicians specializing in the care of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) in Massachusetts. For more information visit www.bciaba.com.