themighty logo

My Autistic Son Is Having Chicken Nuggets for Thanksgiving – and That's OK

Didn’t we just get through the holidays?  I could swear I just got all the holiday decorations packed up and put back in the garage. Of course, as fast as I work, that’s not a very good indicator of how much time has actually passed since the last go-round of holiday hullabaloos.

So here we are again, getting geared up for another marathon month of thanks, tidings of comfort and joy, and one other thing that presents a bit more of a challenge to most families with kids on the autism spectrum: feasts.

Speaking for myself as a parent, the feasting has become the second most enjoyable part of the holidays, right behind watching my children shred open their presents like Tazmanian devils hyped up on caffeine and pixie sticks. Turkey, stuffing, potatoes, gravy, and pie. So much pie. I can’t get enough of it. My 7-year-old autistic son, on the other hand…

My son has some very specific food groups he adheres to:  chicken nuggets, chips, pretzels, most fruits, various Chef Boyardee products (their meatballs being about the only red meat he will agree to ingest), and milk.  So, so much milk. We’ve managed to get him to try new foods by promising he won’t be required to eat them as long as he tries a small bite. Every once in a great while, something will meet with his approval.  This is how we learned recently, to our great joy, that he will also consume fish sticks, adding yet another protein to his diet.

However, should the new dish not meet his exacting tastes, he will most definitely let us know, in no uncertain terms, that said poison shall never be allowed to intrude beyond the gate of his lips again. So with that in mind, most of the traditional food offerings during the holidays do not meet his approval. You know what, though?

I couldn’t care less.

We’ve already got his menu planned for this Thanksgiving – chicken nuggets and rice, with Goldfish Crackers or pretzels as an appetizer, and orange Jell-O as dessert. I submit to you that this is not too terribly different than what most college students would be feeding themselves on any given day, with the notable absence of any form of ramen noodle. (I did try that out on him once. It didn’t go well.)

The fact of the matter is that the bustle of the holidays — the noise, the crowded houses, the shake-up of routine are hard enough on my boy.  I’m not going to add to that with a battle not worth fighting. My son has serious issues with certain tastes and textures, as do any number of children (and adults) on the spectrum. This isn’t about him being a picky eater or being difficult about eating his veggies. To him, taking a bite of the wrong food would be akin to you or me placing a live slug in our mouths. Not the most pleasant thing to consider.

Bearing all that in mind, I have asked myself this question:  is it worth it?  Is what’s put on his plate so important that I’m going to put him through additional stress, potentially sending him into a sensory-overload generated meltdown?  Do I really want to ruin the occasion for him by linking the idea that he’s going to be force-fed things he can’t stand with family gatherings and holiday celebrations?

I think not.

The holidays aren’t about the type of poultry placed on our plates, or the manner in which it is prepared.  They’re about coming together and celebrating the things in life that give it meaning:  friends, family, the joy of giving.  For my boy, it’s not about what’s on the table. It’s about the music in his ears, the bright colors from the holiday lights twinkling in his eyes, and the love he feels surrounded by family that understands and accepts him for who he is.

I’m not going to quit trying to offer him new foods, just like I’m never going to quit trying to expose him to other new experiences that he’ll hopefully enjoy.  I’m also not going to force him to go along with something that causes him horrendous discomfort and anxiety just to go along with “tradition.”  That’s not what I want him to associate with this time of year.

So bring on the nuggets. Bring on the Jell-O.  Let him focus on the aspects of the holidays he truly loves, like Rudolph and Frosty and carols sung with butchered lyrics but unmatched heart. Y’know, the important stuff. Besides, he’s just helping Daddy enjoy his favorite part of the holidays even more by leaving him more pie.

That’s love, the one thing this time of year is truly all about.

This story originally appeared on Fatherhood in the Trenches.

Getty image by rez-art.