Keys to Success for Your Child With Autism and Thanksgiving

Two experts from Roots Autism Solutions share their best tips for navigating autism and Thanksgiving with family — and emerging with joy.

Thanksgiving is a time for travel, tables overstuffed with food and annual traditions — like visits with extended family and pumpkin pie. For families with a child with autism spectrum disorder, navigating autism and Thanksgiving can be a challenge, but the holiday can be enjoyable for everyone involved, according to Jen Link and Jillian Burgard, Co-Founders of Roots Autism Solutions and Therapeutic Academy in Buffalo Grove and Lake in the Hills.

The team at Roots Autism Solutions works hard to help children with autism learn skills to navigate a variety of situations successfully, even an extended-family Thanksgiving. “We help families get ready for holiday success for their child with autism with techniques for preparing for the change in environment and routine to recognizing what a family dinner can look like,” says Link, who is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA).

“We really want our families to come to us with these concerns and challenges, so if you are apprehensive at all, be sure to work with your BCBA and team to let them know what you’d like to prepare for,” Link says.

Whether you will be a guest at a family member’s home or will be welcoming others to your home this Thanksgiving, a little preparation will go a long way to creating a successful holiday for everyone. Here, the experts at Roots share their best tips.

The basics

Parents of a child with autism often have a toolbox of activities or items to calm their child and help them cope with situations that are outside of their normal routine. Thanksgiving should be no different, so plan carefully and pack what your child might need, Link says.

If your child has food restrictions or allergies and you’ll be visiting someone else’s home (or people will be bringing side dishes and desserts to your home), be sure to communicate this however you can. “This is a great topic to bring up with your therapy team because they will offer you ways to talk about this with your family or guests,” Burgard says.

Some children with autism respond very well when they know what to expect. Use a social story to help create a visual picture of how the day will look for your child. Include information about where you will be going, who else will be there and what you’ll be doing. “You can use the social story to prepare your child for visiting grandma’s house, sitting at the kids’ table with cousins, eating turkey and playing outside,” Burgard explains.

“Most of all, talk to all of your child’s therapy providers, including ABA, occupational and speech therapists to get tips and tricks for a successful experience,” Burgard says. “We don’t want parents to ever feel like they are on an island alone. We are here to help.”

Food challenges

Thanksgiving is all about food, so parents of a child who has strong food preferences should decide how they’d like to create a successful experience, which may include turkey and stuffing — or may include foods that more closely resemble the everyday menu their child loves.

Be realistic in your expectations regarding expanding your child’s food tolerances for Thanksgiving, Burgard suggests. “This will be different for every child,” she says. “We can help with that individual support. Perhaps your goal is just to help your child become comfortable with sitting at the table. If you know what the environment will look like, we can help your child in the therapy environment to recreate that and also give tips for practicing at home.”

Whatever your goals, this is a great time to dig into parent support offered by your ABA provider and let them help you prepare to create an environment for success for your child — and for your whole family.

The bigger picture

Take some time to set your own expectations for the family Thanksgiving you want. If that means helping extended family have a better understanding of your child’s unique needs and capabilities, work with your therapy team to find some effective ways to help educate your family. As we learn more about the prevalence of autism, we can move beyond awareness to acceptance — and help others around us move forward, too.

If your aunt is annoyed by your child’s tantrums, for instance, you can help her understand why your child has this reaction.

“Comments often come from a lack of understanding,” says Burgard. “At Roots, we love to know what parents are experiencing and help them anticipate their interactions with family. We can prepare you to put information out there so these comments don’t happen. You don’t have to provide a PowerPoint presentation for everyone, but if you shrug it off, no one learns.”

Of course, the choice is yours. You know best which family members will be most receptive and who can serve as influencers with your larger family. And, Link says, your therapy team’s expert knowledge of how to tackle things in small, manageable steps can help you achieve whatever goals you have — for your child and for your family.

Learn more about Roots Autism Solutions and Therapeutic Academy’s two locations in Buffalo Grove and Lake in the Hills at

Claire Charlton
Claire Charlton
An enthusiastic storyteller, Claire Charlton focuses on delivering top client service as a content editor for Chicago Parent. In her 20+ years of experience, she has written extensively on a variety of topics and is keen on new tech and podcast hosting. Claire has two grown kids and loves to read, run, camp, cycle and travel.


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