If you knew my neighbors in the white house, you could ask them about the Halloween when a kid dressed as a construction barrel waltzed through their front door, refused a handful of Tootsie Rolls, and demanded to know where the bathroom was while pulling down his pants.
If you knew the lady three houses down, you could ask her about the boy who refused all the candy she had to offer because he said he did not like her choices, but he did tell her how much he liked her chandeliers with the energy-efficient CFL bulbs.
If you knew the family at the end of the block, you could ask them about the child who was more interested in the foyer lights than getting a full size Kit Kat or Twix bar.
A few years ago, my son the construction barrel was the only kid in our subdivision who was not interested in filling his orange plastic pumpkin with candy. Then, his Halloween agenda had nothing to do with sugar and everything to do with the quirkiness that can accompany autism.
For my son, October 31 is one of the best days of the year because he thinks it is his ticket into all the houses in the neighborhood. In his mind, it makes sense that when someone opens the front door it’s an invitation inside. Opening the door to my son is not a quick “here’s your candy,” “love your costume” or “have fun trick-or-treating.” It’s an education in understanding those who are different.
Some of the neighbors are good sports, but others have been confused and don’t know how to respond. I can’t blame them but I can educate them and anyone else who opens their door to a special needs child on Halloween. That advice is simple: Be aware, be understanding and be accepting.
Not every child who comes knocking fits the mold of a costume-clad, candy-seeking kid who has spent the last 364 days salivating over this one night.
Halloween can range from confusing to uncomfortable or worse for some kids, including not only those with autism but also children who are shy, allergic, diabetic, speech-delayed or any number of other reasons that make trick-or-treating a challenging experience. For the children with dietary restrictions, perhaps having a non-candy options would make them feel included.
Last year, an organization called Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE) started the Teal Pumpkin Project, through which they asked families across the country to paint and display a teal pumpkin (or downloadable teal pumpkin sign) to signify that non-food items were available for kids with food allergies or children for whom candy is not an option. Plus, the project helps to raise awareness of food allergies and promote inclusion of all trick-or-treaters (except maybe the ones who want to come barging in your house to check out the lights).
When Evan was younger, he had very few words and “trick-or-treat” was not close to being a part of his vocabulary. For a child with autism, or one who is simply shy, approaching a stranger’s house for candy is an awkward and uncomfortable experience. It’s OK if a child does not say “trick-or-treat” or even “thank you.” Please don’t make that a prerequisite for getting candy and know that the parents are most likely working on it.
Some non-verbal children or those with limited communication may come with pre-printed Halloween thank you cards. Also, many parents will practice Halloween with their children ahead of time to make it easier when October 31 rolls around. They practice their “trick-or-treat”s and “thank you”s, and get their child accustomed to wearing a costume and walking around the neighborhood. As a way to prepare, they may even use what’s called a social story to demonstrate appropriate social interactions for their children.
When we first started trick-or-treating, my son hated everything about the whole experience. He hated being outside in the dark. Some of the decorations were too scary. His costumes were sometimes uncomfortable, and he had no interested in candy.
Someone once asked me why we bothered to take him out. It was a good question, but staying home was not an option for us because like many children—with or without autism—the more we expose him to various experiences, the more he becomes used to them and may even enjoy or at least tolerate a previously dreaded experience. Today Evan looks forward to trick-or-treating as much as his siblings do.
So this Halloween, please be aware, be understanding and be patient. Here’s how you can make trick-or-treating a fun experience for any child:
Be aware. Just like you will see all different costumes from devils and angels to zombies and superheroes, you will see kids with different comfort levels surrounding the rituals and customs of Halloween. You won’t be able to tell by looking at them which ones have autism or allergies. You may not know which ones are too scared to talk or which ones simply can’t.
Be understanding. Just because Halloween ranks among birthdays, Christmas or Hanukkah for most kids doesn’t mean that every child who comes knocking on your door is enamored with the idea of dressing up, walking past scary decorations or asking strangers for candy. Kids without costumes aren’t wearing one for a good reason, and they don’t want to be called out for not dressing up. You might wonder why a child is standing on your porch if they don’t even understand the concept or rituals of Halloween. They’re there to acclimate to it so that next year hopefully it isn’t as hard for them. Or, they’re there because it’s important to keep the family together on this special night. Whatever the reason, they’re there.
Be accepting. All kids are unique individuals with their own strengths and abilities and concept of Halloween etiquette, and for good reason, may not be one of their strong points. Give them candy (or non-food item), smile at them, wish them a happy Halloween, and know that it may not be an easy evening for them this year. But it’s wonderful that they’re trying.