JKP author Kate Reynolds (Party Planning for Children and Teens on the Autism Spectrum: How to Avoid Meltdowns and Have Fun!) gives tips about planning and enjoying a ‘Not-So-Scary Halloween’ with your child on the autism spectrum:
Three years ago I took my two children to Disneyland in Florida for Halloween. At the time I had no idea what a big deal this holiday festival was in the States. By the end of Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Party, complete with eerie smoke-filled alleys, tubs of candy treats, dedicated Halloween costumes on every well-known Disney character and grand finale of the Headless Horseman, I could have no doubt.
Not that my son, who was 7, non-verbal and has ‘classic’ autism, appreciated much of the goings-on; he spent a good portion of the party in his disability buggy under his ‘blankie’ with a miniature Mickey and Donald. He didn’t seem scared; more bemused. By contrast my 10 year old daughter, who has Asperger syndrome, quizzed me about every nuance of the party with the tenacity of a detective. Explaining why it’s fun to pretend to have blood spewing from your chest or dripping from fangs can be tricky (but not treaty).
Having children at apparent extreme ends of the autism spectrum may seem a challenge during seasons such as Halloween when we know that sensory issues, unpredictability and pure lack of comprehension of the social world will be exposed. In fact, as a single parent, I’ve learned that simple, consistent strategies work for them both.
- Whatever the social gathering or seasonal event, my goal is to enable them to develop socially so that they can be as independent and socially robust as they can be when I’m no longer here. Some parents never take children to social gatherings or parties – but these are excellent tools for gradually increasing a child’s tolerance of sensory issues, change, social awareness and social interaction with non-spectrum children. ASD kids are constantly developing, just a different rate to non-spectrum ones, so I believe parents’ work is a process of enabling them.
- I prepare them for what’s likely to happen. I draw a story and read this to my son, usually placing a photo of him on one of the stick characters so he grasps this as his reality. With my daughter, I used to read Halloween story books, but this year she’s going Trick or Treating around our tiny group of neighbours s we’ve practised the route she and a friend will use. We’ve also rehearsed what ‘trick’ she might have (yes, she only has one) and how conversations might go. I usually compare chatting with tennis; you take it in turns, with neither person hogging the ball.
- As part of helping my children develop a secure sense of ‘self’ I’ve used mirrors. Initially, my son would copy my mouth movements to form words, slowly developing the knowledge that he was separate to me. Now he’s able to wash his face, comb his hair and check his clothes using a mirror. Masks and costumes became less scary to him when he could observe that he changed appearance in a mask but was still himself underneath it. This last exercise was something I did with my daughter as well, although both children had difficulty generalising this to other people wearing masks or eerie costumes.
- Over the years I’ve worked on increasing their exposure to fireworks. From hiding indoors in the early days, to peeking through a window, to peeping out from under a blanket but being outside, my son can now watch an entire display, occasionally blocking his ears but with no emotional outbursts (meltdowns). My daughter’s ability to adapt to the assault on her ears of loud bangs has been easier because she always enjoyed the visual display.
Of course, the alternative is to throw a Halloween party. There is the great advantage of controlling the environment, including any food or treats, which may be critical if a child is on a special diet. You can help prepare any autistic guests by using the party invitation as a story to show what’s going to happen and can be read prior to the event. You can lessen the assault on your autistic child’s senses, have a quiet area if it all becomes too much and introduce the scary aspects of Halloween in what Mickey would describe as a Not-So-Scary way.
I put these and other practical party ideas in my JKP book Party Planning for Children and Teens on the Autism Spectrum: How to Avoid Meltdowns and Have Fun! (2012) and have a practical website for parents/caregivers: www.autismagonyaunt.com