For 7 years I sat on the porch and passed out candy to the kids in my neighborhood. For 7 years I interacted with hundreds of kids, asking about their costumes, watching them walk down the sidewalk with their plastic pumpkins, and gathering up their Halloween treats.
I never thought the children who didn’t say trick or treat might have speech delays. I didn’t think the kid who scooped handfuls of candies and tossed them in his pumpkin before running off without saying thank you had impulse control issues. I didn’t think the little boy who showed up wearing black sweats had a sensory processing disorder. I didn’t think about the young adult, still trick or treating with his parents was autistic.
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I was completely ignorant and oblivious to the fact that I was interacting with children who had challenges and disabilities. While I know better now, there is still a lot of people who aren’t aware of these challenges. I know that if it didn’t occur to me, then it is definitely not occurring to others.
I think about how with a little awareness, knowledge, and understanding how simple events like trick or treating can be better for kids with these challenges and for their families.
Halloween is a couple of weeks away and I am already thinking of ways how I can help Logan prepare and enjoy Halloween. I want this classic kid memory for him to be enjoyable for him, and while his reaction and behavior can be unpredictable, he is just like any other kid and wants to get candy with his friends.
The truth is if you aren’t familiar with special needs, you might not know what it looks like. Sometimes special need challenges can come off as a child who is rude, defiant, or disrespectful. They aren’t, some things that you might think are easy, like choosing one piece of candy can be are hard for them.
1 out of every 59 children has autism. So, chances are if you are going to see a lot of trick or treaters, you are going to encounter some autistic children, like Logan.
Guess what? You might not even know they are autistic. Autism is an invisible disability, meaning you can’t simply look at someone and notice their disability. You might notice some difficulties that these children are displaying, and some of their actions or behaviors may come off as odd, disruptive, and undisciplined, but that is far from the truth.
I can guarantee these kids are trying hard to just enjoy trick or treating and just be kids.
You know what is even better? You can help them enjoy the experience too. It really is simple with just a little bit of understanding, empathy, and awareness.
Most autistic children have difficulty with social skills, this means they may not make eye contact with you when they come to your door. The might not respond when you speak to them, they may not even say trick or treat.
Gasp, rude huh?
No, they just have difficulty with social interaction. This is something that is beyond their control. They may not respond when you ask them what their costume is, or they may blurt some random fact or something completely unrelated to the questions you asked.
I remember when Logan was Jake the Neverland Pirate, and a neighbor asked him about his costume and Logan blurted out “hot dog hot dog hot diggity dog”. He was into watching Mickey Mouse that week and was scripting from the clubhouse episode. I remember the neighbor just looking at me and saying “well, ok then.” I felt my cheeks blush and we hurried off to the next house.
I could have used this as an opportunity to provide some insight on Logan’s difficulties, but I just wanted to trick or treat with my son, I didn’t want to explain his behavior or quirks at every house we went to.
When a child has trouble with social skills, they may come off as a child without manners. Honestly, they are a child working on skills that don’t come naturally to them. Please don’t take the lack of social skills personal, it is not meant the way you may perceive it.
When you hear that doorbell ring you anticipate the little goblins and ghouls saying trick or treat to you, right. You might even get a little smell my feet rhyme and if a child is non-verbal you may get no response.
I had a neighbor look at Logan once and say, “You got to say trick or treat, so you can pick out a candy.” I had to explain that he has a receptive and expressive delay that he might understand what you are asking, and he might be able to say trick or treat back.
How would you feel if a stranger pointed out something you had difficulty doing?
It doesn’t matter how old a child may appear, speech delays and difficulties can be present. Logan has intense anxiety which makes it even worse. Anxiety and autism pretty much go hand in hand, like sprinkles on a donut. This means a child simply can not respond when you ask them a question or even say trick or treat, no matter how bad they want to. They simply do not have the ability.
Don’t be like my neighbor, do yourself a favor and be okay with a child that doesn’t say hello, or trick or treat. Tell them how amazing their costume is, say happy Halloween, and smile. You can’t judge what you don’t know, and I am telling you there is nothing more hurtful as a special needs parent than a stranger pointing out your child’s weakness. When you have been working so very hard on it.
Some children with autism have difficulty with self-regulation and the trick or treating environment can make that difficulty a little more apparent. I know what this can look like to someone who isn’t familiar with it, it can come off as invasive. Some autistic children are still learning personal space, they may cut in front of other kids in line, they may stick their hand in the candy bowl and take more candy than you expect. They may run into your house as you open the door and stare in amazement of your beautiful fish tank. They might sit down on your front step and start eating all their candy.
Self-regulation is hard for these kids. Heck, I still struggle with self-regulation it is a hard thing to learn. However, without the opportunity to practice self-regulating skills how can they get better? Be a little compassionate and understanding. Allow the child’s parent to correct the behavior and interaction.
You can easily praise the child for doing an awesome job listening or following directions but please let the child’s parent handle the situation. If you aren’t familiar with handling this situation you can easily make this situation a whole lot worse.
The Trick or Treating Experience
For many kids trick or treating is about getting to as many houses as possible to get as much candy as possible. However, trick or treating may have a different goal for an autistic child. Trick or Treating provides an amazing opportunity for an autistic child to interact with other children and practice those lacking social skills. It also provides the opportunity to practice safety issues like crossing the street and staying together with a parent in a crowd.
Trick or Treating is a great event to work on so many skills. If you see a child or even a young adult that you may feel is a little too old for trick or treating, rethink your thoughts. Sometimes cognitive delays accompany autism; that young adult may have a younger mindset and may need to work on some of the goals while trick or treating.
This year our trick or treat experience will be focusing on allowing Logan to practice his social skills, waiting in line, and interacting with his peers.
Sensory Issues and Costumes
Many, many, many children on the autism spectrum have sensory issues. This can make wearing costumes difficult for them. Masks, certain fabrics, sequins, can all be too much for their bodies to tolerate. So maybe a child will come to your door wearing a superhero cape over his regular clothes, maybe a little girl will walk up to your door in sweatpants and a sweatshirt.
It’s not a big deal, pay them a compliment because you don’t know how hard it may have been for that child to simply wear that outfit.
I can tell you first hand how hard it is for me to get Logan to wear clothes most days, putting on a costume is a lot of work and sometimes he can’t tolerate it. Somedays even a simple cape can be too much, and he loves capes.
Remember, for an autistic child, the experience and interactions are far more important than a costume.
Sensory Issues and Decorations
Children with sensory issues also have issues with input from other things, not just clothing. Things like lights, sounds, smells, and new places can be a little overwhelming for an autistic child and can trigger a meltdown. Their bodies can no longer take any more input and they lose control, it can be a heartbreaking and exhausting site.
Before you put out the fog machine, the spinning lights, spooky music, and jumping out behind the bushes, there may be some simpler decorations that can be a little more sensory friendly if you know there is an autistic child in your neighborhood.
Unfortunately, autism tags along with a lot of other conditions and food allergies is a common one. Instead of passing out candy this year you could pass out fun non-food items such as stickers, pencils, erasers, kid bracelets, and fun little trinkets all for the same price. I generally have a mix of both.
I recently met a little girl who told me her best Halloween was when her neighbor gave her a small thing of playdoh. Under her costume, she hides a feeding tube and candy isn’t something that she can enjoy, that one house that gave her a non-food time made her day.
In the past couple of years, there has been an awareness of food allergies during Halloween by way of the Teal Pumpkin Project. This project was started by the Food Allergy Research Education, homeowners can place a teal pumpkin on their porch signaling that they have nonfood Halloween treats for kids.
The organization has lots of free printable to place in a window, or even stake in the yard to let families know your house is passing out non-food items.
What if you were the only house in your neighborhood to do this? You would make a child with food allergies Halloween memorable, special, and inclusive.
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Be Kind and Aware
While passing out candy might not seem like a big deal, it is actually what makes trick or treating possible. You have a huge role in making trick or treating a fun and enjoyable memory.
While there are many simple things you can do to make this memory unforgettable; the easiest is to simply be kind and aware. There are many children that have struggles that aren’t clear to someone who doesn’t know.
So, while you are passing out candy, just be aware, think before you say something insensitive without meaning to, be a little empathic to the child struggling, and be a little more understanding of the child who comes off as a little different.
As a mom of a child who struggles with autism, I ask that you share this post with your friends who are passing out candy this year. Help bring awareness that they may be interacting with all types of children trick or treating some with some very real struggles.
Help others who may not understand the challenges that an autistic child may face on a fun family outing.
Join in on helping autistic kids and other children with disabilities have an enjoyable trick or treating experience by being an understanding and supportive neighbor.
Be kind this Halloween, and send me all the unwanted Reese cups.
Comment below with your favorite trick or treating tips and tricks to share with other families. Here is to a Spook-tacular Halloween.
Want to know more about our autism journey learn about the early signs of autism I missed as a mother and why it took me so long to accept my son’s diagnosis.