Creating A Sensory-Friendly Thanksgiving

By Amy Pinder, MA, CCC-SLP

The holiday season brings a sensory-stimulating buzz of joy and excitement for many. It also brings along many stress-inducing interruptions to daily routines, an array of unwritten social rules and expectations, and increased social interactions. Preparing mindfully for each event, setting boundaries, and committing to self-care are strategies anyone can use to manage feeling overstimulated or overwhelmed.

1. Set intentions to focus on meaningful lessons inherent to the holiday.

Thanksgiving is a time that invites us to feel and express gratitude for the people, places, and things we love. According to positive psychology research, gratitude is strongly associated with increased happiness. Those who choose to feel and express gratitude enjoy improved health, stronger relationships, and more stable moods. Set aside time to read a book about gratitude, complete a gratitude meditation, or simply make a list of things you are grateful for. Download a free meditation application for iOS and Android and search “gratitude” here:

2. Set clear boundaries and expectations.

To manage holiday anxiety, plan and discuss details about planned visits and events ahead of time. For those who find social situations challenging, it is helpful to know about changes to routine in advance, and to be aware of where they will be going, who they will see, what they will be doing while there, and approximately how long they will stay. For some, a written or visual schedule of holiday plans may be very useful. It may also be helpful to talk ahead of time about less familiar relatives. For example, you might recall “Aunt Lisa really likes gardening” and “Cousin Sam loves to play with legos.”

3. Incorporate sensory breaks.

Be sure to include time away from overstimulating environments with crowds and noise. A walk outside, an indoor stretching session, calming music in the car, cuddles with a beloved pet, or simply sitting quietly are all ways to give the brain and body time to process and de-stress. For those who crave sensory input, bring along sensory-supportive toys and tools like weighted lap pads, squeeze balls, and liquid motion timers. Shop for ideas here:

4. Express your needs and create a safe space.

When visiting others, a safe and quiet place to tune out the holiday sights, sounds, and smells may be very helpful. Be sure to make your needs known and ask your host to suggest a space for breaks. If you are the parent or advocate of a guest with limited communication skills, don’t be afraid to educate your hosts about your needs, and to explain that differences in behavior and communication are not rude or an insult to the holiday experience being offered. We can all learn more about ourselves and others when we take the time to be empathetic and accommodating.

5. Bring along something familiar.

In unfamiliar environments, it can be very soothing to bring along a favorite book, toy, object, or food. In this way, you can ensure some comfort and familiarity are incorporated into a new experience.

6. Relax, be flexible, and have fun!

You and your family will have more fun and be more relaxed if you are calm, confident, and willing to go with the flow throughout holiday events. Be sure to take breaks as needed and make mental notes about the challenges and successes so that you can be even more prepared for next year.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Amy Pinder is a speech-language therapist who specializes in the treatment of children with autism. She is the owner of an integrative therapy practice, Circles of Communication. Learn more at

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

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