Trick or Treat time is approaching and I have been getting many requests from parents, "Should my child Trick or Treat this Halloween or not?" As a consultant, I typically don't come right out and tell parents what to do. Instead, I guide them through a questioning process that helps them decide what is right for their child and family.
Every parent, child and family is different. Therefore every decision or action should be customized to the particular situation, there is no "one-size-fits-all" solution.
So here are the questions I would encourage you to explore when making decisions about Halloween for your child on the autism spectrum:
- Does my child want to go Trick or Treating? Does he show an interest or does the desire come from you? Halloween is fun and happens to be a favorite holiday for many adults I know. Unfortunately, your child's enthusiasm may not be what you think it is, especially if she has special needs or is non-verbal.
Always ask, "Who am I doing this for, me or my child?" If your child is not really into Halloween, you run the risk of triggering some anxiety and making Halloween a negative experience.
- What does my child know about Halloween and what to expect? It's important to take the time to talk about Halloween with your child and determine what her perception is about this holiday. Are there any missing links that need to be filled in? If so, make sure you use a method of communication that your child understands best. Depending on your child's learning style - visual, auditory or hands-on - consider the following:
verbally explain what Halloween is all about
create a social story about Halloween that you can read too your child repeatedly
role-play what happens on Halloween for your child to learn exactly what to expect.
Watch a movie together that has kids Trick or Treating.
Remember children with an autism spectrum disorder often have trouble adjusting to changes in routine. They function best when things are predictable. Communicating what will happen in a clear manner will help reduce any anxiety about the event.
- If this is my child's first experience with Trick or Treating on Halloween how can I best prepare here for the event? We all know that children with autism often have sensory issues. Trick or Treating on Halloween can expose them to:
1) Excessive auditory stimulation, such as crowds of people shouting happily, sudden loud noises or homes welcoming you with eerie sounds.
2) Excessive visual stimuli, such as headlights from cars and flashlights, Jack-o-Lanterns, costumes, etc.
Taking all this into consideration and planning accordingly is important and will help minimize the possibility of a sensory meltdown.
- Will my child wear a Halloween costume and if so what kind? Knowing your child and what he can tolerate against his skin will guide you when it comes to costume choice. Pay attention to any tactile sensitivity when choosing what type of costume your child will wear. Is it easy to get in and out of? Does it involve wearing a mask or make-up? You alone know what your child can endure.
- Is my child afraid of the dark or the sight of fake blood? You can control what your child will wear for a costume but you cannot guarantee that she will not run into a gruesome Freddy Krueger, a Frankenstein or a zombie with amputated limbs on Halloween night. If this is a concern for your child, doesn't it make more sense for your child to begin canvassing for treats before darkness settles? Getting an early start is also a great way to avoid the crowds.
- How long do I think my child can tolerate this new activity? Some parents restrict their child's Halloween celebrations to just a few homes of friends and relatives that know their child well or other places where they can trust ghoulish creatures won't be lingering about. A school, neighborhood or church party is often a more predictable and easily controlled environment for children to have a positive experience in. Of course, the way to have most control over Halloween celebrations is to host a party of your own.
- How will I deal with the abundance of sweet treats my child is likely to acquire? Many children with special needs have food sensitivities or allergies and need to adhere to a strict diet. You may not have to worry much about your child's intolerance to dairy or gluten but food dyes and sugar may be a concern. What will be your plan be when your child anxiously wants to dive into his candy stash? Having a discussion about this and establishing written rules in advance is always a good idea.
If you are on the fence about whether or not your child is ready to participate in this Halloween event it's important to respond to these questions and discuss your ideas with friends and family, or your child's therapist(s) if necessary.
All in all, you know your child best so trust your instincts and plan accordingly. If you fear Halloween may be too scary for your child, you may want to read this article, 10 Tips for Scaring Away Halloween Fears.
Whatever you decide to do, may your Halloween be a happy one!