HOW TO HAVE A HAPPY HALLOWEEN WITH YOUR AUTISTIC CHILD
If your child has autism, then you know how challenging holiday events can be. With these events, you combine changes in routine with increased sensory stimulation and mix all that up with used-once-a-year social conventions that fly in the face of the day to day rules. This perfect storm of “wrong” can set the stage for tantrum inducing disasters for many individuals on the spectrum. Despite this, I believe there is no reason that you and your child have to avoid special holiday events, such as Halloween. It just takes a little planning and preparation for both of you to have a wonderful, candy-filled, spooktacular Halloween.
My Foster Child’s First Halloween
My oldest foster child has autism. In the run-up to his first Halloween with us (when he was twelve), it quickly became apparent to us that he had never been trick or treating. We really wanted him to go, but were concerned about how he would handle the event. Like many autistic children, he is very ridged and does not take to change well. At that time, he was prone to get upset and bite people when things did not go as planned or if anybody had to tell him “no.” However, despite our concerns, Lorrie (my wife) and I felt it was important for him to have a shot at experiencing a “traditional” Halloween.
First, we had him look the through the costume store circular. He chose a cow costume (complete with udders). Cows are his favorite animal on the planet (why this is the case is a story for another post). Then, Lorrie went out and found the very costume he picked out. We then tried to explain to him over the days leading up to trick or treat night what he was going to get to do. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but he simply did not get what we were telling him.
“OK, you are going to put on your cow costume. Then you are going to go up to houses, say trick or treat and then you will get candy!”
“Candy Candy Candy!” was his typical reply, followed by confusion as to why the candy was not forthcoming right that second. ( I tell you, I’m a brilliant therapist at times…)
At long last, the night came. We put our son into his costume and gave him a pillow case to collect his loot. He immediately became really uncomfortable. He did not understand what was happening. We went out into the night and started at some neighbor’s houses that knew us and our children. The first challenge was to get him to say “trick or treat” after ringing the doorbell (but waiting for someone to answer the door)…this came out more like “tickatweesh.” (Our boy has some language…two to three word phrases but his diction is poor and he is hard to understand.) The next challenge came after he got his candy. He immediately tried to run home so he could eat his one piece of candy. My attempt to stop him and go to the next house almost resulted in a tantrum, but we were able to persevere.
After about three houses, my boy gave me a look that, to this day, I will cherish. Without saying a word, he looked me in the eye. The look he gave me basically said “So, I go to houses in a costume. I say tickatweesh. They give me free candy. GENIUS!!” He was into it after this. I could barely hold him back. We avoided a couple of houses where they were doing haunted house/scary things. I checked in every couple of houses and asked him “do you want to keep going or do you want to go home?” As soon as he said go home, we headed back. I didn’t push things. Once home, my boy got to eat himself into a classic Halloween sugar coma. It was fantastic.
The best part of the tale came the next day. Our boy came downstairs after school and handed us his cow costume and said “tickatweesh.” He wanted to go out again. We tried to explain that Halloween was over…he asked us every night for the rest of the week before giving up efforts to get more free candy. It was pretty funny. We ended up saving and re-using that cow costume for 5 years before we had to replace it.
All in all, a successful outing for all concerned.
Tips for an Autism-Friendly Halloween Night
— Let your child choose his costume. Avoid costumes with full face masks, lots of makeup or glue-on accessories. These can be uncomfortable and take the fun out of the night for your child.
— Remember the night is supposed to be fun. This is not the time to push limits with your child. All the changes in routine and possible overstimulation will be more than enough for him/her to process.
— Start small, just go to a few trusted houses and see how things go. Then, check in with your child frequently. Gauge how they are holding up. You want to be at home BEFORE they are over-stimulated.
— It might be a good idea to start your trick or treat route at the furthest point from your house and work your way home (as opposed to the more traditional stat at home and work your way out). This has the benefit of having you closer to home when your child runs out of patience (as opposed to being at the furthest point from home when he was done…as happened to me one year…not a fun walk back).
— If you are unsure as to whether your child can handle the whole trick or treat experience, explore alternatives such as trick or treating at the mall (a more structured, better lit environment), or attending or hosting a small party where you can get treats and dress up for a little bit.
— Spend time before trick or treating explaining the expectations and laying out the “rules.” Even non-verbal children have pretty good receptive language and will get the gist of what you want. This helps by giving them some idea of what to do that will reduce the “newness” factor of the event.
— Don’t be afraid to abort the event if your child shows signs of not being able to handle it. There have been years where we brought a child back after a few houses because he was getting too upset and needed to calm down. One year, one of our kids didn’t go out at all because he was just having a bad day. It is more important to keep everyone safe and happy than to be slaves to “tradition.” If the candy is an issue, it ALWAYS goes on sale November 1st…deals are there to be had.
— Avoid going to houses that do scary things like haunted houses and such. Keep things on the low-key fun side unless you are DEAD certain your child will enjoy being scared (my kids simply don’t like that stuff).
— Praise your child frequently throughout the event for following rules, being brave, etc. Cheer him/her on…this stuff is new and hard to do at first.
— If your child LOVES his/her costume… demote it to pajamas or weekend-wear until they get tired of it.
— If your child is a very picky eater, buy some treats you know he/she will like and slip them into the Halloween bag.
I hope this information helps make your Halloween more fun. If you have other stories or tips for making Halloween more Autism-friendly, please leave a comment. Please feel free to email me firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions or suggestions.
Remember, BREATH and DON’T PANIC! You got this…
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Copyright 2013 Erik Young, M.Ed. LPC