Don't let special needs diminish Halloween fun

Oct 29, 2012 at 11:00 a.m. ET
Image: Huntstock/Getty Images

This Halloween, it will be easy to huff and puff about a child who just shoved her fist into your candy bowl and walked away without a “thank you.”

A guide to Halloween & autism

Instead, consider whether that child still might be learning fine motor skills (required to select one piece of candy precisely) or perhaps can’t speak yet.

Today, we know so much more about children, their development and some common challenges facing them, such as Sensory Processing Disorder or an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

With education should come understanding and some modifications to “the way we’ve always done it.” Accommodating a child’s special needs doesn’t mean you’re spoiling the child. It means you’re showing compassion — and what better “treat” on Halloween than a little compassion toward a child?

Tips for parents

Prepare! “We have to do a lot of priming weeks before we head out,” says Los Angeles mom Dawn Hentrich, whose son has autism. [We get ready by] wearing the costume around the house, practicing "trick-or-treat" as needed. He's ready this year (he wanted to go out a few nights ago) but at the beginning of the month, he wouldn't even talk about Halloween.”

Trish has three children, ages 14, 7 and 4 years old. Her 7-year-old son has been diagnosed with an ASD, sensory processing disorder and a speech delay. Talk of Halloween begins early in their home. "We start talking about it when we are shopping for back to school," she says. "We are beginning the preliminary costume shopping next week, just to get ideas and to see what he is interested in. We do several Halloween events, going to several trunk or treats and local events."

Another fun way to prepare: "You could write a social story and read it with them daily," suggests Carrie Roylance, speech language pathologist in the Center for Autism and Related Disorders at Kennedy Krieger Institute. "Social stories, created by Carol Gray, give children very specific information about what they should expect and how to respond in a variety of situations.

"A social story about Halloween might begin like this:

  1. Halloween is on Thursday.
  2. After dinner, I will put on my costume (or, “special clothes” if that would be more concrete for your child).
  3. We will go outside and see our friends.

"This story would continue depending on the needs of the child," Roylance says.

Books about Halloween

A fun and simple way to help your child begin to think about Halloween is by incorporating Halloween themes, vocabulary and stories into book sharing time.

Roylance says: "Many books talk about pumpkins and carving jack-o-lanterns, and a few good books for describing Halloween to early learners include:

  1. What is Halloween? By Harriet Ziefert
  2. Corduroy’s Trick or Treat By Don Freeman
  3. My First Halloween by Tomie dePaola

Battle of the costume

If a child refuses to wear a scratchy costume — or any costume — let it go. The day should be about having fun, not about having the perfect costume.

Trish describes her family's Halloween history:  "[My son] has been Thomas for 2 years and more recently a gorilla for 2 years, only because he liked the way the costume felt. He always goes through the motions of Trick or Treat. Last year was the best Trick or Treat ever though. He actually said Trick or Treat and carried his bag."

Focus on speech

If your child is nonverbal, prompt him to sign thank you. If a homeowner sees you working with your child to teach manners, she is more likely to be understanding.

If your child’s speech is difficult to understand, Kathryn Lariviere, executive director of the Down syndrome Association of Greater Charlotte (North Carolina), recommends having the child hand out cards that say, "Trick-or-Treat! My speech may not be clear right now, but I want you to know that I'm wishing you a very Happy Halloween!"

Don't forget the treats!

"Many children with autism have dietary restrictions or very selective food preferences," Roylance says. "Friends and neighbors can give out inexpensive, yet inedible, treats like stickers or squishy balls. As a parent, you could even visit your neighbors before the big night and leave them something that they can give your child that you know the child will enjoy. That also gives you the opportunity to let your neighbors know that you’re going to be trick-or-treating with your child with autism. You can explain it’s their first time (or not) and you’re unsure how it will go, but are excited to give it a try and would appreciate their patience."

Keep perspective

Trish's advice to parents is simple: "Let them lead the way. Do not push it. We all want those amazing pictures and fantastic memories but at what cost? If your kid is done after 20 minutes, then let it be and go home."

Tips for homeowners

  • Don’t assume a child is rude because he snubs your candy bowl; he may have an allergy and knows better than to put his hand in with all those Snickers.
  • Likewise, don’t assume an “old enough” child has no manners because he doesn’t say thank you; he may be not be talking yet (in special needs terms, this is called “nonverbal”).
  • Make sure pathways are clear and well lit. Just because you don’t take the side path doesn’t mean an eager trick-or-treater won’t, so take an extra moment to put away rakes and hoses.
  • If your home has steps leading to the door, consider setting up a candy bowl at sidewalk level with a sign inviting children who might not be able to navigate the stairs or may be in a wheelchair. Don’t want to miss the interaction? Set up camp on your patio, and greet children as they come up the walk.

No matter how much we plan, the only certainty is that kids will find a way to catch us off-guard. Take a breath, take a moment and go with it.

As mom Ellen Seidman writes, “Last year, both kids refused to dress up, Sabrina joining Max in a show of sibling solidarity... I let go. We would do Halloween our way, in T-shirts and sweatpants. That would be our tradition, as quirky as our family itself.”

Make your own tradition this year, one of acceptance and patience. This fresh perspective may mean the difference between a frightening, stressful holiday and one full of happy memories.

More on children with special needs

Have a sensory smart Halloween
Potty training a special needs child
Tips for visiting theme parks with kids on the autism spectrum