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Thanksgiving DinnerImagine being a school-age child with sensory sensitivities and food allergies. It’s probably pretty difficult to navigate an ordinary day full of classroom and hallway noise, the smells of the cafeteria, the shouts and screams from the playground, the multitude of other kids who all make noise and need things…

Now, take that same kid, and bring him to Grandma’s house for an evening of holiday dining. He’s dressed in uncomfortable clothing (that might itch at the neck, wrists or waist), in an unfamiliar environment with unfamiliar people, eating unfamiliar food. To top it all off, his parents are probably nervous, and that puts him on edge because they’re usually in charge. Oh, and he’s expected to be on his “best behavior” the whole day.

Every year, extended families get together for dinners at one member’s house. There is stress, sure. Uncle Joe and Uncle Steve never see eye to eye, and Grandma always liked her firstborn granddaughter best… Parents are tense, grandparents are strict, and kids try to stay out of trouble but find it anyway. So how do you make holiday family time easier for a child with isms?

Practice, Practice
“Best behavior” is a nebulous concept for people who think in concrete terms. What does it mean? We all have an idea about “please” and “thank-you” and putting your napkin in your lap and talking in your “indoor voice.” But until you get to practice, it’s just words. So: practice. Set the regular dinner table with cloth napkins. Dress up. Practice sitting straight with your hands in your lap. Go through your set of expectations. What, according to your rules and traditions, constitutes good manners?

Eat Out
Yes, I know it’s difficult to eat an entire meal in a restaurant with a child who wants to flap his arms and taste food on other diners’ plates. It was a struggle to bring  our child to restaurants when he was little because he tended to want to flip around in his chair and stare at other tables or just dive under ours and stay there. But he had to learn how to behave appropriately around strangers. So we kept bringing him to restaurants. Yes, we endured “the look” sometimes. But we kept practicing. And it eventually became easier to get a whole meal down peacefully.

Set Expectations
On our way to Grandma’s, we establish the context for the visit. We tell the boys who will be there, how long we plan to stay, and set an expectation for “indoor voice” and “napkin in the lap.” That way, if they have questions about our rules, they can ask beforehand. Once we’re there, the agreement is we do it Mom and Dad’s way. “No arguing” is one of our rules.

Provide an Exit Strategy
There are times when my beautiful boy just gets too much sensory input. It affects him less now that he’s older, but he still needs to “blow off steam” sometimes when he’s too excited or nervous for a prolonged period. Expect that might happen in a highly stressful or unfamiliar environment, and give the kid a safe place to take a break. This could be the back yard, the basement or an upstairs guest room. It should be a private place where cousins won’t laugh, flapping won’t break precious crystal curios and where the child has enough room to run or spin around without injuring himself. Once he’s unwound, he can rejoin the group.

Keep it Simple
Consistency is always the best guide, so have the same rules for dining at home that you do for dining out or at another person’s house. Rules should be simple, concrete, and phrased in the positive. That means, instead of “don’t chew with your mouth open,” say, “chew with your mouth closed.”

Golden Rule
When it’s time to go, it’s time to go. If you’ve told your child you’re leaving at 4:00, keep an eye on the time and leave when you said you would. If Grandma wants to keep you, you have to tell her you can’t stay. A successful evening sometimes depends on keeping your promises. If your child has been doing his best to make you proud for four hours straight, he’s probably exhausted by the time it’s 4:00. If you try to push to 4:30, he might not be able to keep it up, and we all know what kind of bad meltdown comes from an overtired, overstimulated kid.

We all have experienced uncomfortable family moments during holiday meals. With practice, patience and clarity, we can minimize those moments our kids cause. Happy holidays!

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Kate Dran is a user experience analyst, professional writer, autism advocate and parent of 2 beautiful and perfect sons, one with autism, one developing typically. She founded Adaptive Solutions Analysis, LLC , a private consulting firm that provides usability assessments and user experience analysis for adaptive technologies that support the cognitive, sensory and motor development needs of K-12 students with autism. She believes that autism-friendly user experience is human-friendly user experience.