Preparing Your Child with Autism for a Holiday Meal

Categories: ASD and DD, Child-focused

By Jenna Garvey, M.Ed., LABA, BCBA

[This column was published in the West Springfield Republican on November 18, 2021, and in the Stoughton Journal on November 29, 2021.]

With the holiday season upon us, you may be planning to attend celebratory dinners with family and friends. While most of us look forward to these meals, they can present challenges if you have a child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) due to the disruption of routine, presentation of unfamiliar foods, and the overstimulation that can sometimes occur. However, with a little planning, your holiday mealtime can be a joyous occasion for all. 

If you are the parent of a child with ASD, consider what it is about the event that could cause your child to need a bit of additional preparation, then problem-solve from there. Below are some common areas of challenge, along with some proposed solutions.

Some individuals with ASD sometimes demonstrate food selectivity, which is a fancy term for “picky eating.” Novel foods, preparations, textures, and smells can lead to a hesitancy to try certain foods. Reach out to the host to see if you can determine what the menu will be. From there, work with the host to see if reasonable accommodations can be made. You can also use the information about the menu to prep your child by letting them know what will be served, or letting them try out a food prior to the big day.

You can offer to bring a dish to share, ensuring it’s one that your child will reliably consume (and perhaps can even help to prepare). The day of the meal, encourage your child to sample some of the new foods, and consider offering a reinforcer such as a preferred treat or activity as a reward for trying a bit. However, don’t force children to eat novel foods or require they finish a whole portion. Sometimes, tolerance to new foods requires lots of exposure and a systematic approach. The important thing is to maintain a positive tone so the child remains open to trying new foods in the future. 

Disruption of routine
Take time leading up to the holiday to prep your child about the routine change in ways they can understand. It can be helpful to use a calendar to show days off from school and when visits to family members will take place, and talk about how long they will last. Allow your child to bring some favorite toys or treats, and consider bringing along supports such as visuals, communication aids, or timers that you can use to help provide a bit of structure and predictability to the event.

Knowing that overstimulation can occur, work with the host to set up an area in their home where your child can take some time alone. While you can certainly encourage socializing, it may be better to let your child have some space when needed, and then re-engage with family when they’re ready. This could avoid a meltdown that results in having to leave the celebration altogether.

Sometimes the most overwhelming part of a holiday celebration is navigating family dynamics. Don’t be afraid to set boundaries. Be upfront about the level of support that would be helpful (in other words, when they might step in to help, or stand back if the child is having difficulty). Let your family know your expectations regarding social participation and food consumption, so they can follow your lead. With a bit of preparation, your entire family can enjoy holiday meals this year and look forward to many more in the future.

Jenna Garvey, M.Ed., LABA, BCBA, is Clinical Director at the May Center School for Autism and Developmental Disabilities in Chicopee, Mass. She can be contacted at

About May Institute
May Institute is a nonprofit organization that is a national leader in the field of applied behavior analysis, serving individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other developmental disabilities, brain injury and neurobehavioral disorders, and other special needs. Founded more than 65 years ago, we provide a wide range of exceptional educational and rehabilitative services across the lifespan. May Institute operates five schools for children and adolescents with ASD and other developmental disabilities, including our newest school in Chicopee, Mass. For more information, call 800.778.7601or visit