How to Have a Sensory-Friendly Thanksgiving 

As Thanksgiving celebrations approach, you may worry about how to make the holidays enjoyable for your sensory-sensitive child (or even yourself). Although many people enjoy Thanksgiving, celebrating and spending time with family and friends, many children and adults contribute to sensory overload and stress. Thanksgiving can be a particular challenge for children with sensory processing disorder or autism. The change in routine, interacting with extended family members, big, noisy, boisterous dinner tables and visiting other people’s homes is often overwhelming. A sensory-friendly Thanksgiving helps solve the problem of holiday sensory overload. 

This blog post shares the importance of celebrating a sensory-friendly Thanksgiving and provides multiple ways you can create a sensory-friendly Thanksgiving for your family this year. 

What is sensory-rich about Thanksgiving celebrations? 

First of all, it is important to understand why your Thanksgiving event is actually a problem for some people. Thanksgiving events are sensory-rich. Sensory-rich means an environment or experience that is multi-sensory or stimulates more than one sense. Sensory-rich environments often contribute to sensory overload. 

One of the most significant sensory-rich factors at Thanksgiving celebrations is the increased number of people. For people with and without sensory sensitivities, being around new people in an unfamiliar setting feels stressful and uncomfortable. Additionally, the noise of different conversations feels overwhelming. 

Furthermore, bright lights, fluorescent lights or even brightly lit décor contribute to sensory overload. The Thanksgiving meal may come with unfamiliar scents and smells. In addition, for people, children and adults, both with tactile sensitivity, formal or different holiday wear can also be a problem. 

How to create a sensory-friendly Thanksgiving event 

Plan in advance 

The first and most important step in creating a sensory-friendly Thanksgiving is preparing in advance. It is important to recognize that Thanksgiving celebrations interrupt your usual routine. Examples of changes in routine may mean your child stays up later than usual, goes to bed later and has less sleep. At Thanksgiving, you are likely to eat different foods. Furthermore, you may be travelling and visiting family in their homes. As well you may be visiting family and friends who you do not see frequently. Ultimately, all these changes lead to increased levels of stress.

Therefore, it is important to prepare your child well before Thanksgiving. If you are travelling to a different zone, adjust sleep and wake times, even by 15-minute intervals, a few days in advance. It will help you too! Introduce and practice eating unfamiliar Thanksgiving foods before the big day. Practice social skills, like how to greet unfamiliar family members. Look at pictures and videos of past Thanksgiving to remind your child of what to expect. And encourage your child to “play” Thanksgiving. Children learn through play and practice many skills through play. Finally, talk about Thanksgiving and what to expect, and give your child an opportunity to ask questions about their expectations, too.

Additionally, consider ways that you plan to make the event a little less stressful for the child. For example, if you know that your child enjoys a specific type of food, bring it along to your Thanksgiving dinner. Including things that are familiar help, everyone adapt to new experiences.

Create a schedule and share it with guests 

An easy and cost-free way to help make your Thanksgiving event sensory-friendly is to create a schedule for your guests. A good schedule includes where the event will take place, the timing of the event and, most importantly, a list of specific activities that will take place during the celebration. Letting your guests know what to expect in advance is one of the most helpful things you can do. It helps make people feel comfortable. Therefore, be sure to share this schedule a week or two before the event takes place to give your guests time to prepare. 

Give families the opportunity to ask for accommodations at your event 

Additionally, allow your guests to ask for specific accommodations for the event. There may be specific and minimal changes that you are unaware of, which would help to make the celebration accessible. For example, some people may prefer to sit in a quieter area of the room. Or, some people may prefer to bring their own food, something they know their child will eat, for example. Ultimately, give your guests the option to share any personal changes that would like to see at your event. You will be much appreciated. 

Develop a sensory-friendly environment 

Here are a few steps to create a sensory-friendly environment. Furthermore, you can offer them throughout your Thanksgiving celebration or, alternatively, at specific times. 

  • Avoid fluorescent lights. 
  • Remove flashing lights. 
  • Reduce noise. 
  • Turn off background music. 
  • Ensure you have enough toilets that are accessible and gender-neutral. 
  • Include comfortable seating. 
  • Alleviate strong smells and scents. 
  • Eliminate clutter. 
  • Add chair balls to the feet of chairs. 

Provide a quiet zone for guests 

Another important step is to create a quiet zone for your guests. Where possible, designate a separate from the main event space for your quiet zone. Add some comfortable seating. Create a space with some borders/barriers to mark it off. Importantly, this area should be free from conversation or any type of noise. Additionally, add fidgets, books, weighted lap pads and quiet activities. Quiet activities for children might include Thanksgiving themed arts and crafts. Finally, this will be a safe place for your guests if they feel overwhelmed or stressed. 

Include sensory-friendly kits 

It is important to know that people have different sensory preferences. Sensory-friendly kits will allow your guests to create an environment that is best for their preferences. For instance, sensory kits can include the following: 

  • Noise-cancelling headphones.
  • Fidgets.
  • Weighted lap pads.

Incorporate calming strategies

In addition to creating a sensory-friendly space, you can also incorporate other calming strategies into your Thanksgiving celebration. As mentioned earlier, include sensory-friendly toys like fidgets for children. Have everyone (adults, too!) do group yoga or a little meditation. Instead of a downward dog pose, call it bending turkey. Make your meditation about gratitude and giving thanks. 

Incorporate movement breaks 

Furthermore, adding movement breaks helps manage energy and stress. The easiest movement break is a walk. Go on an all-family walk outdoors around your neighbourhood. Create expected routines, for example, where children go outside when the adults are washing up the crystal and china! Consider a walk just before the big meal too! It will help settle everyone down before dinner and give the host and helpers a few minutes to add last-minute touches (and maybe put their feet up for 5 minutes, too). 

Make a flexible dress code 

Another important sensory-friendly suggestion to consider when planning your Thanksgiving event is being flexible with the dress code. For many holiday celebrations, guests are expected to dress up in more formal clothing. However, formal clothing may feel very uncomfortable for people with tactile sensitivity. For example, buttons or tight-fitting clothing may be irritating. As a result, many people choose sensory-friendly clothing. 

Allow your guests to wear the type of clothing that they find comfortable. 

Provide sensory-friendly training to employees and volunteers 

Lastly, if you are hosting a more formal event, include staff training. Training ensures people know what to expect and how to help and accommodate all guests. Additionally, this research, “A Community-Based Sensory Training Program Leads to Improved Experience at a Local Zoo for Children with Sensory Challenges” by Kong et al., (2017) has found that sensory-friendly training programs improved staff interactions and perceived quality of experience for neurodiverse children 1. Make sensory-friendly staff training part of your next community event. 

Make Your Event and Location Inclusive with Training

Family gathered at dinner table during sensory-friendly Thanksgiving.

Incorporate Thanksgiving greetings 

Greeting friends and family are a big part of Thanksgiving. However, they can be uncomfortable for some. According to the article from neuroscience journalist Maia Szalavitz, “Understanding Why Autistic People May Reject Social Touch,” a 2012 study proposed that the brains of people high in autistic traits do not necessarily “code” touch as socially relevant 2. So include greetings that do not include touch, to be more sensory-friendly! Offering sensory-friendly greetings as an option can be a big part of a sensory-friendly Thanksgiving! A sensory-friendly greeting is a way to greet someone in a way that is more comfortable for the senses. Greeting unfamiliar people, in particular, with touches like hugs and kisses, can contribute to sensory overload or be a challenge for someone with sensory sensitivities. 

Contact Greetings 

Contact greetings are often used to welcome someone else. The most common example is a hug. Contact greetings are good options for someone who enjoys physical contact with other people. Some people do like hugs! Making them short (like a 3-second rule) or firm (instead of light touch) helps. However, hugs might be overwhelming, so be sure to offer different types of contact greetings, like: 

  • handshakes 
  • foot taps 
  • fist bumps 
  • elbow bumps 
  • high-fives 

Contactless Greetings 

On the other hand, many people prefer contactless greetings. According to the article written by neuroscience journalist Maia Szalavitz, “Understanding Why Autistic People May Reject Social Touch,” a 2012 study, a possible interpretation is that the brains of people high in autistic traits do not necessarily “code” touch as socially relevant. While autistic people of all ages may not like greetings that involve contact or touch, so, too, do many other people want to avoid them! 

To make guests comfortable, introduce contactless greetings at Thanksgiving: 

It is important to ensure that your Thanksgiving community event is enjoyed by as many people as possible. In conclusion, make sensory-friendly changes to include more people! 

Wishing you a happy, healthy, sensory-friendly Thanksgiving that is just right for your senses! 

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Source

  1. Kong, M., Pritchard, M., Dean, L., Talley, M., Torbert, R., & Maha, J. (2017). A Community-Based Sensory Training Program Leads to Improved Experience at a Local Zoo for Children with Sensory Challenges. Frontiers in Pediatrics, 5. https://doi.org/10.3389/fped.2017.00193
  2. Szalavitz, M. (2012). Understanding Why Autistic People May Reject Social Touch. TIME. https://healthland.time.com/2012/03/19/understanding-why-autistic-people-may-reject-social-touch/
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