Host a Sensory Friendly Thanksgiving Event

For many people Thanksgiving is an exciting time of the year for family, friends, neighbours, congregations and communities to come together and celebrate. However, for a large number of children and adults, gatherings are overwhelming and stressful. Ultimately, this may deter many people participating in Thanksgiving celebrations. You can make people comfortable and be more accessible and inclusive by hosting a sensory-friendly Thanksgiving event.

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.

Multi-generational family gathered around dinner table on Thanksgiving.

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

Create a sensory-friendly Thanksgiving event with simple, effective steps to include more people and be accessible.

Infographic highlighting 7 ways to host a sensory-friendly Thanksgiving in your community.

Create a schedule and share it with guests

An easy and cost-free way to help make your Thanksgiving event sensory-friendly 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.

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. You can teach staff or volunteers to offer sensory-friendly Thanksgiving greetings.

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!

Interested in learning more about creating sensory-friendly holiday events for your customers, clients, members or group? Then, check out:

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  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.
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