Creating a Sensory-Friendly Thanksgiving: A Guide for Individuals with Overstimulation Challenges

group of friends making toast

As we approach the season of gratitude and togetherness, it’s essential to consider the unique needs of individuals who may experience sensory challenges. For those with conditions such as ADHD, autism, or sensory processing challenges the holiday season, with its bustling gatherings and festive environments, can be overwhelming. Let’s explore how to make Thanksgiving dinner more sensory-friendly, addressing factors like food options, noise levels (including misophonia), and decorations.

4 minutes

1. Sensory-Friendly Food Options

Thanksgiving is synonymous with a delicious feast, but it’s crucial to accommodate varying sensory needs when planning the menu. Consider:

  • Texture Variations: Opt for a variety of textures in dishes to cater to different preferences.
  • Familiar Favorites: Include familiar and well-tolerated dishes that individuals may find comforting. Who says you can’t have chicken tenders for Thanksgiving dinner?
  • Individualized Plates: Allow guests to customize their plates, avoiding mixing textures or flavors that may be overwhelming.

2. Managing Noise Levels and Misophonia:

Thanksgiving gatherings can be noisy, from conversations to clinking dishes. Here’s how to create a more comfortable auditory environment:

  • Designated Quiet Spaces: Set up quiet areas where individuals can retreat if the noise becomes overwhelming.
  • Noise-Canceling Options: Provide noise-canceling headphones or earplugs for those who may benefit from reducing auditory input.
  • Communicate Expectations: Let guests know in advance about the noise level expectations, helping them prepare.

3. Sensory-Friendly Decorations:

Create a visually pleasing and calming atmosphere by considering the following decoration tips:

  • Soft Lighting: Opt for softer, warmer lighting to create a cozy ambiance. Overhead white light or flickering lights can be overwhelming.
  • Simple Decor: Minimize clutter and choose decorations with subdued colors to avoid overwhelming visual stimuli.
  • Familiar Themes: Incorporate familiar or favorite themes, such as Disney or other interests, to make the environment more comfortable.

4. Plan Ahead:

  • RSVP with Preferences: Encourage guests to communicate their sensory preferences when RSVPing so you can plan accordingly.
  • Create a Schedule: Share a rough schedule for the day. Some people might prefer to attend for a few hours during appetizers or to swing by after the meals are served.
  • Incorporate Activities: Plan some activities, such as simple crafts or games, to provide alternatives to overwhelming social interactions. Small talk can be challenging!

5. Provide Options:

  • Diverse Seating Arrangements: Offer various seating options, such as comfortable chairs or cushions, to accommodate different sensory needs.
  • Buffet Style: Opt for a buffet-style meal vs seated dinner to allow individuals to control their food choices and portions.

But what if I’m a guest?

Navigating a Thanksgiving dinner as a guest with sensory challenges requires a bit of preparation and communication. Drawing from my own experiences, here are some pointers to make the celebration more enjoyable for you:

1. Communicate Your Needs:

  • Ask About the Schedule: Inquire about the rough schedule for the event. Knowing when certain activities will take place allows you to plan your time effectively and avoid social burnout.

2. Come Prepared:

  • Pack Your Essentials: Just like I always carry earplugs and Lactaid in my purse, bring any items that help you feel more comfortable. This could include noise-canceling headphones, fidget tools, or other sensory aids that work for you.
  • Know Your Limits: Plan how long you can comfortably stay at the event without feeling overwhelmed. Taking breaks or stepping outside for fresh air can be beneficial in preventing social burnout.

3. Create Your Safe Spaces:

  • Scope Out Quiet Areas: Upon arrival, identify quiet corners or spaces where you can retreat if needed. This can serve as a refuge to recharge your social battery.
  • Utilize Breaks: Take intentional breaks to step outside or find a quiet spot. Use this time to regroup and center yourself before rejoining the festivities.

4. Connect with Animals:

  • Interact with Pets: If the host has a pet, consider spending some time with them. Animal-assisted therapy can be incredibly soothing and provide a welcome break from the sensory stimulation of the gathering.
  • Communicate Comfort Levels: Let the host know if spending time with their pet is something you find calming. They may appreciate the opportunity to facilitate a more comfortable experience for you.

Remember, being a guest at Thanksgiving should be a positive experience, and your comfort matters. Don’t hesitate to communicate your needs with the host, and take the necessary steps to create a sensory-friendly space for yourself. By doing so, you can enjoy the festivities while ensuring that your well-being is prioritized.

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