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Karen Wang
BY Karen Wang

How to Create the Perfect Thanksgiving for Families with Special Needs

What would make Thanksgiving perfect for you and your family?

When I was a kid, every Thanksgiving was noisy.  The house was filled with people and the aroma of roasted turkey all day long.  We watched the parade on television in the morning and had an extra-long, extra-early dinner, then half of us would fall asleep strewn across the furniture while the other half watched a football game.  I loved it, and I never imagined that Thanksgiving could be any other way.

But that holiday model has been an epic disaster ever since my first child was born.  His special needs meant that we had to re-think our holiday plans to accommodate him.  It turns out that there are lots of other ways to make Thanksgiving perfect.  Here are 8 ideals for celebrating the holiday and creating your own tradition:

1. Waterpark

WaterparkWhen I asked my children what makes their Thanksgiving perfect, they both instantly answered, “Waterparks.”  Playing in water has a calming effect on the body and senses, so it offers relief when stressed out by large family gatherings and changes in routine.  Sometimes we visit the water room at Friendship Circle on Thanksgiving.  In other years we’ve gone to the local recreation center with an indoor waterslide and spray zone, and we’ve also tried the large waterpark hotels with holiday packages, such as Great Wolf Lodge, Kalahari Resorts and Zehnder’s Splash Village.  Sensory integration means a no-meltdown holiday, which fits our definition of perfect!

2. Make it a buffet

buffetMy husband told me that his perfect Thanksgiving means, “Everyone eats the food that he actually likes.”  There’s no point in roasting a turkey or making 3 pounds of mashed potatoes if no one is willing to eat them.  I’ve had more success serving up several small dishes of simple foods like steamed corn, sliced apples and bread with olive oil rather than traditional Thanksgiving foods.  My mother-in-law used to serve roast turkey with sides of stir-fried vegetables and steamed rice.

3. Get outdoors

Special Needs Recess playgroundIn the years when my children slept very poorly, I would let my husband sleep in on Thanksgiving by taking the kids out for a morning walk.  Connecting with nature alleviates our stress level and improves self-regulation.  Being outdoors helps us start our day with peace and good cheer.

4. Build relationships

ReadingWhen he was younger, the hardest part of holidays for my son was being around relatives whom he didn’t know very well.  They also did not know how to interact comfortably with him, so they usually gave up quickly and ignored him while his anxiety escalated.  We had more success building relationships by approaching one person at a time and doing some type of activity together – for example, sewing with Grandma or making breakfast with Aunt Maggie.  This allowed each person to learn how to communicate with my son and improved my son’s comfort level – no more questions fired rapidly and loudly across the room at him.

5. Special Interests

Special Needs Lego TherapyAnother way to build relationships is to follow the special interests of the person with special needs, such as Minecraft or Legos.  The person with special needs becomes the expert who instructs and leads family members through a shared activity.  My family’s rule for video games and computer games is that they can play as long as it is a social experience – when only one player is left, the machine is shut off.  So consider making this your first Minecraft Thanksgiving!

6. Do a project

Working on a project

My children have a strong urge to create, so we have been talking this week about projects we’d like to do on Thanksgiving.  Creative projects are an excellent way to support cognitive development and self-regulation, which makes holidays a much calmer and happier experience.  We will be finishing a still-life painting and hand-sewing a felt craft.

7. Short visits with small groups

Special Needs FamilyI just spoke with a friend who is hosting 50 people at her home on Thanksgiving.  For many children with special needs, large groups are overwhelming.  It may be more successful to plan short visits of 1 to 1.5 hours with small groups of relatives, separated by quiet breaks at home or in a hotel room.  Or invite 2 to 4 people to your home for short visits over the course of the 4 day weekend.

8. Spirituality

PrayerMedical studies have found that regular spiritual practice improves overall health and reduces stress. Thanksgiving coincides with Chanukah this year, so it’s a good opportunity to make this a more spiritual holiday.  Reflect on and discuss your family’s larger purpose in life, and encourage a sense of appreciation for blessings already received.  That sounds like the perfect Thanksgiving for me.

Karen Wang

Written on November 27, 2013 by:

Karen Wang is a Friendship Circle parent. You may have seen her sneaking into the volunteer lounge for ice cream or being pushed into the cheese pit by laughing children. She is a contributing author to the anthology "My Baby Rides the Short Bus: The Unabashedly Human Experience of Raising Kids With Disabilities"