Monday, October 11, 2010

Having a Merry But Modified Halloween

Shannon Des Roches Rosa

Halloween should not be a time for parents of kids with autism to dwell on Ghosts-of-Halloween-Past or Ghosts-of-Halloween-That-Might-Have-Been, because there's far too much fun to be had. We do, however, need to approach Halloween with clear-headed creativity and flexibility, and prioritize our kids' needs and stamina. So, if you're in the market for Halloweening advice, let me dump some on your head, courtesy of personal experience, friends' adventures, the Internet, and the Twitterverse.
  • Does your child find the entire concept of Halloween overwhelmingly frightening? Then sit down with your child and read as many books about Halloween as you can, talk about what kinds of activities may be available, agree ahead of time which activities your child will participate in and to what degree, and reassure them that they can opt out of anything, any time (and then weave behind-the-scenes spells to ensure that your promise holds).
  • Does your child need encouragement to try new or different things? Trick-or-treating may be just the ticket, given the treats they'll get at every stop. (Trick-or-treating can also be awesome for kids who thrive on scripted activities or routine.)
  • Do you think your child will enjoy trick-or-treating, but are worried it may not be appropriate for them? If they tire easily, or have easily-triggered and unpredictable meltdowns, then plan a limited route close to home, or have another adult trail your crew in a getaway car. If your child has limited mobility or is in a wheelchair, scope out your trick-or-treat route ahead of time so you can note non-accessible houses and avoid them.
  • Does your child have sensory issues that make Halloween a horror show of overwhelming strobing lights, loud noises, and scary, unpredictable decorations? Skip trick-or-treating, and instead plan a sensory-friendly Halloween party. If your house isn't the right spot, rally a group of parents and ask a local church or school to donate party space (don't be afraid to politely opportunize the 'kids with special needs' angle). A dedicated party also allows parents with children on special diets -- or those who prefer to sidestep sugar-based temperament detonators -- to plan appropriate menus.
  • Do sensory issues also limit Halloween costume choices? Are scratchy seams, tags, and headgear all deal-breakers? Consider pajama-like costumes without headgear, like Superman or Supergirl, Jedi, or Ninjas. If your child does martial arts, let them wear their uniform. If they want to go trick-or-treating but don't want to wear a costume, then who cares -- let them wear their regular clothes.
  • Do you suspect that your child doesn't yet grasp the concept of Halloween? Then don't force them to participate in Halloween traditions unless they want to. Instead, plan alternate recurring seasonal activities your child will enjoy, and look forward to.
My son doesn't care about Halloween, but he does like to mill about with other kids and to climb things -- so each year we take him to our favorite local Pumpkin Patch. It's not the fanciest pumpkin environment, nor does it have bouncy houses, inflatable slides, or train rides. What it does have is a huge open field of pumpkins, a old truck for climbing and jumping on, a hay bale pyramid for surmounting, and endless running around opportunities for Leo to hang out and groove with other kids in the pack-like manner he prefers.

Can you tell which of the kids atop the giant hay bale pyramid receives government-funded respite hours?

Nothing like a good weight-bearing gross motor activity, especially for kids like Leo whose occupational therapists have advised more upper body- and trunk-strenghtening exercises.

Leo and his siblings and cousins spontaneously playing Herd in a Truck. They're good at it. They love it. Leo's included. No one had to structure, plan, or facilitate anything beyond delivering these kids to that field.

This is not a boy who plans for or cares about Halloween. This is a kid who enjoys the moment.

Good luck, friends. Have a safe, happy, fun, and regret-free Halloween, and feel free to send me any leftover candy.


Additional Halloweeny resources for families of kids with autism:

A version of this essay originally appeared at