Holiday Meals

Holiday gatherings, large and small, are filled with challenges for individuals with autism. For example, meals can cause problems. What issues create conflict or confusion? And what can we do to make gathering around the dinner table an enjoyable experience for all?

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WAITING PATIENTLY. Some individuals with autism can go with the flow with holiday meals being served at irregular intervals, but others are not as flexible with changes in their expected meal schedule. Some people with autism may not be able to wait patiently when families delay a meal while waiting for the turkey to finish cooking or while waiting for Aunt Tilly to arrive. If you expect a delay in serving meals, you can either prepare a plate to eat at the regularly scheduled mealtime, or you can talk to your friend with autism in advance, helping them understand there may be a delay in meals during family gatherings. You can even work together to prepare hors d’oeuvre’s for everyone to enjoy before dinner.

FOOD ALLERGIES. Some people have significant allergies to various traditional holiday foods. And others may run into problems with overeating. Relaxing precautions can lead to health issues during the holidays, so you might want to watch dietary choices carefully. No need to make a big issue over a person’s allergies or over the menu. Just quietly provide some alternatives to foods that cause allergies, and gently encourage a person to eat moderate amounts if necessary for their well-being.

SOCIAL GRACES. Because of deficits to one degree or another with manners, conversations, and interaction with other people, some individuals with autism may do or say something rather embarrassing during a family holiday meal. If a person can learn from social stories and guided practice, you can rehearse appropriate table manners in advance and have a little cue card to put on the table by their plate as a reminder. If these techniques are not effective with your friend with autism, you might consider sitting next to them, providing gentle guidance through the meal. In either case, there is not need to draw additional attention to the situation by profuse apologies, critical remarks, nagging reminders, or otherwise fanning the flames of discontent for your friend with autism or other people at the table.

TIP FOR THE DAY: With just a bit of planning and guidance, you can help make holiday meals more pleasant for everyone. If mealtime is a particularly stressful time for your friend with autism, you might want to consider arranging your visit to avoid holiday meals.

NOTE TO READERS AND LISTENERS: I am Cathy Knoll, a board certified music therapist and long-time friend of many folks with autism. At we are committed to providing free, practical, everyday tips for making life better for people with autism. Feel free to send me a confidential email at with your thoughts or challenging situations or innovative solution. And don’t forget to check out our website for a wealth of ideas and a glimpse into the world of autism.

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