For families of children with autism holidays can be overwhelming. Changes in routine and large gatherings can present a bunch of new challenges. It’s easy to become overwhelmed and feel isolated and alone during these times. Being proactive going into the holiday season can make a big difference. Here are 10 things you an do to prepare your child with autism for the upcoming Halloween season.
1. Choose their costume wisely. Many children on the spectrum are highly sensitive to touch so choosing a costume that is lightweight, comfortable and easy to get on and off will prove to be the most successful. You can always add on with a hat, mask and other accessories if they are interested.
I learned this valuable lesson when my co-worker gave me a realistic dragon costume for Owen on his second Halloween. I was certain that he would love it. I pictured us on Halloween night, walking door to door as everyone remarked how adorable he was in his costume, trying to say trick or treat.
Twenty minutes later, I had his little body stuffed into the elaborate dragon costume so that his face peered out from the dragon’s mouth. I was sweating and out of breath and he looked miserable. I placed him in front of a mirror assuming that once he saw himself in the costume that he would love it. Instead, I watched in horror as his eyes grew bigger and bigger with fear. I’m pretty sure from the look on his face and the terrified screams that followed that he was convinced the dragon was eating his head! He tried running away but that only made matters worse when he saw the dragon was following him. Poor kid. Tackling him, I tore off the costume while he hit and kicked me. I was horrified at his reaction. This was supposed to be fun. It took him 20 minutes to calm down afterwards. It took me a year. He wore his monster shirt with cape that Halloween instead. Lesson learned.
2. Read lots of books about Halloween. Books are a wonderful way to introduce new events and ideas to all children but play an even bigger role in children with autism. Stories help them to connect words with pictures which leaves a more meaningful and lasting impression for those who struggle with communication. Later, when you are out trick or treating you can talk about the book and point out the similarities in your situation. Social stories are an incredibly helpful tool to use for upcoming events like trick or treating or wearing a costume. Check out these fabulous and free social story printables for Halloween.
3. Practice trick or treating. Practicing trick or treating is an excellent way to prepare your child for the big day. Dress up yourself, pretend to be a ghost then let them peek under the sheet to see that it’s you. Encourage them to dress up and look at themselves in the mirror. The sillier the better. This teaches them about costumes and encourages imaginative play.
Give them their own special candy bag or bucket that they’ll get to use on Halloween night. Then practice taking turns being the trick or treater. Teach them how to knock on doors and hold their bags open while saying, “Trick or Treat” and “thank you.” Make it a game, silly and fun. Ask them questions and engage them as much as possible. The more exposure they have the better prepared and more confident they will feel on the big day.
4. Have a backup plan. Make sure that you and your spouse have a clear understanding of your backup plan and when to implement it before going to a party or trick or treating. My husband and I have spent many family gatherings with Owen melting down between us arguing over who’s going to take him outside for a break or whether we should leave or stay. It’s awful for everyone involved, most of all for Owen.
Decide which parent will be responsible for the child with autism during the event. Drive separately in case your child becomes overwhelmed. The parent assigned to the child can leave quickly while the other parent can stay with the siblings and take time to say the proper goodbyes.
Sometimes a break is all your child may need. Bring a toy, blanket or object that your child finds comforting and keep it in the car. If they become overwhelmed you can take a break in the car with their comfort toy or blanket. Once they have calmed down you can try to rejoin the party.
5. Be realistic in your expectations. Expectations are my nemesis. I have made so many situations more difficult due to my expectations not being met. If you find yourself thinking or saying, “This is going to be so much fun!” or “My child is going to love this!” Prepare yourself that there is a very real possibility that it won’t be fun and your child will hate it. Let go of your expectations. Allowing the day, event or moment to unfold on its own will bring you much more happiness and less stress than trying to make people, places and things meet your expectations.
This reminds me of Owen’s first Halloween when he was ten months old. We were going to a Halloween party as the Super Family. I had a lot of expectations for the evening, none of them I shared with my husband. I pictured Jeff and I walking hand in hand with Owen while people made a fuss over our Super Family costumes. We’d take a bunch of adorable photos that I would later share on Facebook.
Instead, Owen was cranky and tired. All of my attention was spent trying to keep him happy. Jeff was having a great time mingling with our friends. I was getting increasingly annoyed because nothing was going according to my plan. I located Jeff across the room and shot him a look that said, “I’m about to go super psycho up in here.” As he made his way over to me with that look that only men get when their wives start putting demands on them, the photographer shouted, “Say cheese” and snapped our first Halloween photo as a family.
It makes me chuckle now when I look at this picture. However, it was a great lesson and reminder for me to let go of my expectations and to let the night unfold as it should. Picture perfect is never as interesting as reality anyway. Make plans but expect them to be broken.
6. Empathize and Support. One of the biggest challenges for children on the spectrum is their difficulties with communication. Most often behaviors occur out of frustration from not being able to communicate their needs properly. The second biggest challenge is sensory. One of the hardest parts of being an autism parent is not becoming exasperated with your child when they seem to be having a very difficult time over what appears to be nothing.
Appearances can be deceiving. There is a lot of new information for them to take in and process during a Halloween party or trick or treating. Routines are thrown off. Their costume may be uncomfortable and distracting but they are unable to tell you. They may have a hard time distinguishing between reality and make believe and may think that all of the ghosts and goblins running around are real. Add a plethora of sensory triggers such as flickering lights, children’s excited screams and babies cries and it’s easier to understand why they are having such a difficult time.
Understanding some of the challenges that your child is facing makes it much easier to empathize with them in order to help them walk through the challenges. Showing our children that we understand and then helping them to cope in these situations will strengthen their self-confidence, lessen their fears of new situations and diminish a lot of the unwanted behaviors.
7. It’s okay to say no. The family obligation meter is highest during the holidays. Expectations among family members and friends can put a lot of pressure on parents of children with special needs during the holidays. You know your child and family best. If you feel that the invite to a party, trick or treating or dressing up is going to be too overwhelming for your child, then it is perfectly okay to decline the invitation. Ask them to keep you in mind for future parties. Remember that your child is growing and changing daily. What seems insurmountable today will be another milestone achieved tomorrow.
8. Start a Halloween-themed family tradition. It’s easy to feel a bit left out during the holidays because of the limitations your autistic child may have. That’s why it’s really important to create a family tradition that will make Halloween a special time for everyone in your family. Click here for some great ideas to get you started.
You can make it as elaborate as you wish. Scaling back my expectations, we kept things very simple last year and had a wonderful time. Children with autism often struggle recognizing and understanding facial expressions. We incorporated that into our Halloween festivities. We would draw a bunch of pumpkins with different expressions then the boys took turns guessing how each pumpkin was feeling. The boys loved it and to this day comment on how a pumpkin is feeling whenever they see it at the store, in a book or movie.
When it came time to carve our pumpkins, my husband creatively drew different faces onto each one. One pumpkin just had a scary face. The other pumpkin had a happy face on one side and sad face on the other. The boys loved to watch it go from happy to sad then back to happy again.
9. Celebrate Halloween at home. If your child has difficulties being in a large group then celebrate Halloween at home. Play dress up and trick or treat in your own home. Prepare a bunch of snacks that everyone loves and settle in for the night to watch your family’s favorite Halloween movie. If you are feeling particularly daring that night, pick out a new movie to watch. Choose wisely, this could be the next movie your child binge watches for the next six months!
10. Have fun! Most importantly make this Halloween season fun for your family. The goal is to introduce the holidays, customs and traditions of your family to your child with autism in a fun and relaxed way. If you see that your child is becoming overwhelmed in a situation, then take a break or leave. Remember to celebrate life’s moments no matter how big or small. The more positive experiences they have being around other children and trying new things the more likely that, in their own time, they will gain the confidence to interact with others and enjoy these moments too.
Have a safe and Happy Halloween everyone!