Sunday, October 27, 2013

Trick or Treat and Autism

This month, several articles have appeared online suggesting ways for parents to help their children with autism celebrate Halloween this week. Since Halloween and its accompanying costumes, candy, and creepiness can be overwhelming to any child--let alone those with sensory and and/or anxiety issues associated with autism--these tips can provide useful guidelines. As I read various suggestions, I found myself nodding my head in agreement at times, but at other times, I was scratching my head in disbelief at some of the stupid comments in these lists. Taking the best of these ideas along with our positive experiences of trick or treating with Alex, I offer my own version of Halloween Helpful Hints.

1. Costume Comfort: Many articles include this suggestion, which is a good one. Sensory issues may make wearing certain costumes, makeup, or masks difficult for children with autism. Here in Northwest Indiana, all kids have to consider the cold factor, which means being able to wear a coat or several layers of warm clothing under a costume to keep from freezing while trick or treating. For that reason, I usually incorporated sweatshirts and sweatpants into Alex’s Halloween costumes when he was younger.  Since I made his costumes for him, I involved him in their construction, discussing ideas with him, picking out the fabric together, and trying on the costume as I sewed it. Also, we knew he would never wear a mask, so that was never a part of his disguise.  Consequently, he was pleased with his costumes and eager to wear them. One article from a national autism organization pointed out the obvious: “If your child does not like their costume, don’t make them wear it.” Aside from the pronoun agreement error [their should be his/her—which bothers me as an English teacher!], this tip should be true for ALL children, not just those with autism.

2.  Practice: Several articles offered ideas of how to prepare children for trick or treating by doing trial runs at the houses of friends or relatives prior to Halloween. The process of ringing the doorbell along with saying “Trick or Treat” and “Thank you” seems like a simple one, but for kids with autism, this can be difficult. Some articles suggested social stories that include the steps for trick or treating to prepare children for this event. With Alex, we used to go over a list of rules before Halloween. We knew he was paying attention, because I could hear him softly chant: “Don’t go into people’s houses, don’t ask their weights or ages, say ‘Thank you’” as we walked along our trick or treat route.

3.  Vigilance: Since almost half of the children with autism have a tendency to wander away from places of safety, parents need to keep their children close at hand when trick or treating. With the additional activity and darkness, children could easily wander away and get hit by cars. Several articles mentioned the importance of carrying flashlights to help guide the way, keep an eye on the child, and reassure the child in the darkness. In addition to keeping the child safe, parents also need to make sure the child is calm. With all the activity, children with autism may become overwhelmed and melt down. As one article stated the seemingly obvious: “Know your child’s limits and do only what he or she can handle.” While this should be a guideline for autism parents (or any parents, for that matter) every day, this tip proves especially true for holidays. When Alex was younger, I kept him right by my side during trick or treating, which once led to my getting yelled at by a grouchy old man who informed me that I was too old to be trick or treating. (My lack of costume and trick or treat bag should have been a clue that I was a parent.) Also, I continually monitored Alex’s mood, asking him if he wanted to go to more houses or go home. Because he had the choice, he remained calm. When he was tired and indicated he was done, I immediately took him home. Common sense prevails.

4. Communication: Although autism is more prevalent, many people do not recognize children with autism nor understand their behaviors and may mistake their inability to communicate as rudeness. Although Alex could say “Trick or Treat” and “Thank you” (often with reminders), he wasn’t prepared for unscripted questions friendly people may ask him. Sometimes, I would cue him with an answer, and other times I would explain that he has autism, which makes speaking difficult for him. One article recommended placing an autism awareness sticker on the child’s trick or treat container and printing cards to hand to people with facts about autism. This struck me as a bit overboard, but I liked the idea of printing cards for nonverbal children that explained that they could not speak, so this card was a way of saying “Trick or treat” and “Happy Halloween.”

5. Alternatives: While trick or treating may be overwhelming for children with autism, some organizations provide Halloween parties for children with special needs that allow them to enjoy the holiday in a more structured setting. Another tip offered in articles is to have the child pass out candy instead of going trick or treating. After Alex was too old to go trick or treating, which he always enjoyed, we have had him engaged in passing out the candy. Most of the time, he prefers to watch us actually give kids the candy, but he likes seeing the little kids dressed up in costumes and listening to “the little voices” they have. With his mathematical mind, he keeps track of how many kids come to our door, which comes in quite handy. Yesterday, as I was buying Halloween candy, I turned to him to find out how much I needed to buy. Since he remembered how many trick or treaters we had last year, he was able to calculate how many bags of candy we should get.

Although most children eagerly anticipate Halloween as a favorite time of the year, for children with autism, this holiday can be overwhelming. By preparing them ahead of time, anticipating their needs, and being willing to change plans, parents can help their children with autism enjoy the occasion on their own terms. For more helpful suggestions regarding children with autism and Halloween, I recommend “Your Tips for a Safe, Comfortable, and Enjoyable Halloween” on the Autism Society’s website. [To access this link, click here.] This article is a compilation of ideas from parents of children with autism and offers truly useful suggestions. As for Alex, although I no longer need to make him a costume, he still insists that we decorate our pumpkin that we picked from the pumpkin patch last weekend. Truthfully, I’ll be glad when he tires of that tradition, since I’m the one who has the task of scooping out pumpkin innards. Happy Halloween to all!

“Yes, the Lord pours down His blessings. Our land will yield its bountiful harvest.” Psalm 85:12


K. C. Wells said...

Great tips, Pam! And I'm with you on scooping pumpkin innards. Yuck! :)

Pam Byrne said...

Thanks, K.C.! Hope your kids had a great Halloween. I decided not to scoop the pumpkin after all, and he just poked the "beads" into the whole pumpkin instead, which worked just as well. By the way, for anyone who is interested, I found the pumpkin decorating kit we use online at Amazon; here's the link:
Take care,