Posted by: E (The Third Glance) | November 17, 2012

An Autistic’s Holiday Survival Guide: Part 4 – Food and the Family Dinner

This is part 4 of my Autistic’s Holiday Survival Guide. (Part 1: Clothes, Part 2: Attending Parties, and Part 3: Hosting Parties can be found at the links given.) I will continue adding to this guide indefinitely. If you would like to suggest a topic, please leave a comment or drop me an email – if I feel like I can address it, based on my experiences, I would love to do so.

An integral part of any holiday is spending time with the “Family” – whether family is immediate family, extended family, or friends, there’s often at least one, and usually several more festive meals that happen during the season. Fancy meals can spell misery for an autistic girl like me: there are strange foods that are not on my list of approved edibles; there are usually requirements for fancy clothes and fancy lighting; there are quite often extra people around, displacing any regular seating regime; and there is the expectation of appropriate socialization. Whether attending a dinner/lunch at someone else’s house, or hosting one at your own, here are some suggestions that I’ve developed to help make the Family Dinner type event more pleasant for everyone.

First, in terms of clothing. Most of the time, my family expected you to dress up for fancy meals. For me, dress clothes are utterly miserable. I can not even think about wearing a dress, because of the air touching my skin. Most dress pants have the wrong texture. Nice shirts almost ALWAYS hurt and crinkle their texture just makes me want to cry. Clothing has always been a challenge. I addressed clothing in part 1, but I wanted to re-touch on it here. To help with the “fancy clothing”, if it can’t be avoided entirely I have a few suggestions. First, it isn’t necessary to have super nice footwear if you’re going to be sitting at a table. Let your feet be comfortable. Second, try to find a nice outfit with clothes that are approved by all parties. You may have to look for a long time. But have everyone involved in the process. I like to look nice when I can, however my sensitivities don’t allow me to be able to wear most dress clothes. I have spent years looking for, and have eventually found, dress clothes I am able to wear. I have just two sort of outfits, but that is enough – I’m able to look nice, and be comfortable enough physically to function. Don’t force anyone into clothes they can’t tolerate: all it does is increase the amount of effort that goes into coping with clothes, thus reducing the amount of effort available for dealing with strange foods and conversations. Meltdowns happen when you’re overstretched. So cut corners on the things that don’t matter so much, and just enjoy each other’s company.

If you, like my mother, like and want family photos in specific outfits, find a time to do that. If it’s an outfit that you or your child doesn’t like, sit down and explain it to them. Perhaps they will be willing to put the itchy awful sweater on for the 5 minutes it takes to snap a photo. I always fought the fancy clothes more when I didn’t have an agreed upon removal time. I can tolerate something for 5 minutes, especially if I don’t have to do anything else during that time, which I wouldn’t be able to tolerate for 30 minutes or a 3 hour dinner. And really, no one is going to remember what the clothes you or your child were wearing at dinner. You’ll remember the food. You’ll remember the gossip. But if your child wants to wear sweatpants and a t-shirt to dinner, and that will help them to sit through the meal and enjoy it, then that is a valid solution.

Second, the food. Oh, the food. Some of my biggest autism-related challenges revolve around food, because I’m super sensitive to texture, and have issues with many foods. I am very specific about what I can and can’t eat, and so holiday foods have always posed a challenge, because they’re “supposed to be special”, and thus, out of the ordinary line of “what I can tolerate eating”. The strong smells, new textures, and novel tastes can be incredibly overwhelming. Add that to the stress of socializing, fancy clothes, and a break in the routine, and I’ve got a massive meltdown situation on my hands, and thus, I have developed a number of ways to mitigate it.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to abide by the “I will try it once” rule, in order to expand my gastronomic horizons, and I have gotten better about what I will eat. However, I know that I will not like everything I try (not even the majority of it). If I am at a dinner, I need to know that there will be some food there that I like, so that I can cancel out any of the awful that comes of trying something new that turns out not to work. To do this, I do one of several things. If I’m going somewhere, I always volunteer to bring something I know I like. It might be the only thing I eat that day, but at least I know it is safe. This can work for attending a meal at someone else’s house – you can contribute to the meal in a way that will make it better for you and/or your child. I try to make enough for everyone at the dinner – or at least a respectable amount – this way, it’s not just “E brought her own food” but rather, “E brought the cornbread” or “E brought the pumpkin pie”, which means I can feel good about myself as well as have something good to eat.

The other thing I suggest doing with food is that if you’re going to have a fancy dinner at home, whether it is just the immediate family, or a larger group, is to involve your autistic child in the preparations. Whether it be having them help set the table (my mom did this with me when I was very little – a big responsibility, and went nicely with my obsession with lining things up just so), or even help with some of the cooking. While I don’t like to eat most of the fancy food, I can help to cook it, and often I can control a little portion of it that is “E-safe”. I’ve never, as an adult, hosted a dinner of my own, so I don’t have any tips for that, but as a child, I could feel safe and in control of the meal if I helped to cook it. Strange foods are scary, but at least they’re not completely unknown. And I’m more willing to try something if I’ve helped to prepare it.

If it is not feasible to have your child help cook or set the table, at least try to involve them in the decision-making process for what they want to eat. Ask them what food they want at the special family meal – it’s supposed to be a special occasion, so make it memorable and enjoyable for everyone, and let everyone pick their favorite dish to have at the meal, even if it’s not a “traditional” dish. This can lead to new traditions that everyone in the family can participate in, and enjoy, not just the autistic person. For example, I LOVE artichokes (only the leaves, not the heart), but since they’re very expensive, my parents made a point to have them special for me for our holiday meals, both Thanksgiving and Christmas. Sometimes I was the only one who ate an artichoke, while everyone else had something else, but usually my parents enjoyed them as well.

The actual dinner, with the sitting at the table and socializing, can be managed much easier if the sensory assaults have been reduced. Decrease or turn off the music. Have a safe chair for you/your child to sit in. Create a sign that your child can give you if they need to be excused from the table to go calm down or take a sensory break – sometimes words are too hard to form, or the conversation won’t stop enough for me to realize the break to make the proper remove-myself comment. Have several topics of conversation that pointedly come up that everyone can participate in, in an organized fashion. This reduces the chaos of a large table with many discussions and too many conversations to follow. It gives me and my brain a break if everyone can pause and listen to one person at a time for a little while. This can be something like the “what is everyone thankful for” question, but it can also be something more nuanced – I once participated in a “you have 60 seconds to tell everyone at the table anything you want, on whatever topic you would like to share”, which was incredibly fascinating. And once it was done, I could discuss the topics with the people who introduced them, thus creating more conversation.

And after the meal, allow for some down time. Making it through something like that is always exhausting for me, and I know it must be for others on the spectrum as well. Once the meal is done, having some time to escape from the social is necessary to recharge. Whether at home or at a friend/family’s house, have an established “quiet spot” you can go to for the break you need. And the break in routine? I handle that by preparing for it, starting weeks in advance. I plan and assess and think and re-plan until I know exactly what I am getting into. Then when it comes time for the actual event, I’m not as rattled, because I am ready for it.

While these tips won’t work for everyone, they have helped me out immensely, and I hope that by sharing what works for me, I can help you discover things that work for you. These things don’t make holidays “the best time of the year” for me, but they do help me to survive, tolerate, and even enjoy some of the fancy dinner-type events that used to mean only utter misery for me.

So, my tips for surviving family (fancy) holiday meals:

  • DO: help your child (or yourself) to pick out an outfit that they (you) can tolerate easily and feel comfortable in
  • DO NOT: force the issue of fancy clothes
  • DO: Make sure there is a food dish that you or your child enjoys present on the table
  • DO: Involve your child in the decision-making process for the meal – help them to feel in control of what they are going to eat during the event
  • DO: Involve your child with the planning, set up, and cooking if possible
  • DO NOT: force your child to eat something they don’t seem to be able to tolerate
  • DO: create a secret sign that means “I need a break” (and the corresponding “ok, you may go” sign) to help your child feel safer at the meal. Also, have an agreed upon “quiet spot” wherever you are, that you/your child can go to for a break
  • DO:  help to create a chance for your child (or you) to participate actively in the conversations

Happy Holiday Season!


  1. I’ve always found family occasions stressful, especially if it’s a large gathering. For years I’d sit, mouselike, in an unobtrusive corner and speak only when spoken to.

    As an adult it’s become a little easier. I still don’t always know what to do or say, and I’m still not keen to dress up (even though I do have some really nice clothes) because it feels as though I’m being told what to wear. What helps me is that my in-laws (my mother-in-law and her husband anyway) are very laid-back and informal, and we never stay long at my father-in-law’s if we visit (he and his wife usually come to us).

    My mother and stepfather don’t do big family gatherings any more because Mum is recovering from cancer, but my uncle, my aunt and one of my cousins might drop in. I find it more difficult when my sister and her tribe descend on Mum’s tiny house (my sister has an adult daughter and a teenage son, and two grandchildren so to me that’s a lot of people all at once).

    My Dad doesn’t “do” Christmas and is a very solitary man, so when we visit him it’s just us and his pet rats. My stepmother died suddenly this year and so it’s going to be strange for him this year, I think.

    With so many people to visit (we have to fit friends in when we’re in my home town too!) we both find it far easier to stagger things so that neither of us are too overwhelmed. As a result we don’t even get all of our friends together; we’ll see a couple during one weekend and then see somebody else the next time we’re in town.

    After our visit to my family (my autistic son is with a wonderful foster family in Gloucester) we relax for another week or two before my in-laws start dropping by.

    I fully intend to be eating venison alone with my husband, watching cheesy Christmas TV and wearing my Arthur Darvill inspired snowflake jumper 🙂

  2. My son is just six but every year there is some delayed reaction to the holidays. While I have never required dressing up, eating strange foods or even sitting at the table, your mentioning the differences in colors and the different foods (although he is hyposensitive) to smell) and the different people in the house (we don’t go out) is something to consider. Your post provides a valuable lesson. Thank you for sharing your experiences!!

  3. I think the “Need a Break” signal will be a big one for my son and me this year. THANK YOU!

    • 🙂 Yes, it is a very useful thing, that “get me out of here, stat!” signal…

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