Thanksgiving is just around the corner! If you have a family member with special needs, then Thanksgiving can be challenging, as can any family gathering. Our OTs have a few tips to help you not only survive the holiday season but THRIVE through it as well.

Gratitude List

Take some time to think about what you are grateful for this season. Once a day sit down with your child and write one thing you are both thankful for. It can be as large as the existence of the universe or as simple as wearing your favorite socks. While you write your list, watch as your attitude for gratitude changes!

Read Up

Spend a few minutes each night reading with your kids about the upcoming holiday. Check out your local library to find picture books or holiday reads for all ages. Discuss what the holiday is about and what celebrations will look like so that your child knows what to expect. Social stories about upcoming events can be a huge help in reducing anxiety!


Make a paper turkey, decorate the table or draw a picture! Arts and crafts provide heavy handwork and engage the body with the brain, making it a terrific sensory experience. The holidays are ripe with opportunities to break out your creative side, especially with kids home from school!


If you can do a practice run with your sensory-seeking or sensory-avoiding child, you will both be better prepared to enjoy the day. Pack up the things you’ll bring with you, get dressed and hop in the car. You can do a short family trip to get a sense of going somewhere. If you can’t actually drive somewhere ahead of time, then look at pictures of the place and the people you’ll see. By going through the motions ahead of time– without the stress of the actual day– kids often feel more comfortable with the change in routine. Practicing will make Thanksgiving more pleasant for everyone!

Plan Ahead

Try to avoid surprises on the day of Thanksgiving. Talk openly about what your plans are for the holiday and how the day may go. Allow your kids the space to ask questions and voice concerns so that they feel comfortable with the plan. If they’re up to it, involve them too! Let them know how they can help, encouraging them to own the celebration.


If you are going to be guests, make sure that your hosts are aware of any accommodations your child may need. Explain that you may step out to take some breaks or even leave early if necessary. Come up with a plan for how you’ll know when your child needs a break. Use a signal for how they’re feeling or check-in at intervals. Pack their favorite sensory tools or something familiar from home. Your child will be more at ease if their environment is prepared ahead of time.

Play Outside

Take a break and go outside during the holiday visit. Often parents don't want to miss the social time indoors but the price to pay is often a meltdown or a frustrated child. Spending time outdoors with your child, or even just away from the crowd, will allow you all to enjoy the visit for longer.

Connect with Others

Your extended family and friends may not fully understand how your family needs to navigate holidays or that it can be a very isolating experience for you. Find others who are going through the same thing. Building a support system of parents who understand the stresses you are going through during the holiday season can make a huge difference. And, if you find family or friends who try to give you suggestions or comments, remember to trust yourself. You know what is best for your child.

Plan B

Should things not go as planned, have a backup plan. Remember that the most important thing is that your child should have a positive holiday experience even if that means cutting the length of the visit or even not visiting family at all. 


However the holidays go for your family this year, they don’t last forever. Everyone will get back to a familiar routine soon enough! What strategies for success do you use during the holidays? Share them in the comments, on our social media or at!

This post was originally posted on 11/03/2014 by . It was updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness on 11/14/2021.