Choose a Comfortable Costume—If your child on the spectrum is old enough to pick out a costume, take her with you before the stores are too noisy and crowded. Encourage her to choose a simple costume—that doesn’t have lots of accessories or complicated closures—so she can dress (and undress!) independently. Avoid scratchy fabrics and heavy, plastic masks that inhibit breathing and cause your child to sweat. If your child on the spectrum is unhappy because she is hot and itchy, she will NOT be unhappy alone… For parents who are making costumes, have your child touch the fabric and be sure there are no exposed seams to irritate the skin.
Halloween, A Unique Opportunity for Engagement— Most kids (on and off the spectrum) are motivated by the prospect of unlimited candy. This holiday lends itself perfectly to a happy version of Applied Behavioral Analysis. Depending on the developmental level of your child, you can have a simple conversations about costumes, characters, what a sibling is wearing, and what candy she hopes to collect. Even kids on the spectrum who are incapable of pretend play and display no interest dress up will probably try their hardest to go with the Halloween program—if they are going to be rewarded with a bag full of treats. My daughter Samantha was ho-hum about Halloween and sometimes picked out a costume that had no particular meaning for her. At age 6, she chose a Raggedy Ann costume knowing nothing about the doll. I still have no idea why she chose that costume. “Why” questions were impossible for my daughter at that age. I think she was attracted to the bright red, white and blue costume and make up. What mattered was that the costume was easy to get on and off, had a bright red yarn wig (and Samantha LOVED yarn), and she allowed me to put white pancake make up on her face, delighting in the red dot on her nose. Most importantly, she LOVED the compliments she received (and we enjoyed them too).
Create Ground Rules in Advance—Are you going to have dinner before or after trick or treating? How long will you spend ringing doorbells? Our family usually gathered enough candy to enrich all Upper East Side dentists in Manhattan after an hour and a half. Another important consideration is when will homework be done? Hint: Having kids complete homework first is usually better than trying to do it afterwards in the midst of a sugar rush or subsequent exhaustion. If you live in an apartment building, will you wait for the elevator or take the stairs? Our family found it saved time if we took the elevator up to the top floor and then walked down, instead of waiting for an overcrowded elevator which stopped on every floor.
Halloween Etiquette–How much candy will you allow your child to take each time they ring a doorbell? Most people offering candy will encourage kids to take a lot (because they don’t want to eat it themselves!) Older neurotypical children (might) notice whether the candy bowl is full or close to empty and govern themselves accordingly. However, kids on the spectrum (like my enthusiastic little girl) would quickly grab as much as possible. I found it best to agree beforehand on one handful, or my saying “that’s enough.” For us the ABA method worked: “Your choice is to follow the rules and be polite or Halloween ends early.” Halloween is an unprecedented opportunity to practice “please” and “thank you” so many times that your child will probably never forget.
Handling Halloween Booty— After your costumed darlings return home with more candy than they could possibly eat before it goes stale, what should you do with their holiday haul? We used to dump out the candy on the floor, and sometimes the kids would trade. Since my twins rarely conversed, this was a nice opportunity for Samantha to learn verbal (and literal) give and take. Any candy that was improperly wrapped was discarded. Ditto for treats no one liked but were too polite to decline. If there was an over-abundance of Skittles or mini-Hershey bars that year, I encouraged both of my kids to set some aside for the doormen or for the Ronald McDonald House in our neighborhood. The remainder of our sugar fest was stored on a high shelf in the kitchen. How many candies will you permit your son to eat that day and the next? Better be specific or your child might try to negotiate a big bag of M& M’s or Skittles to count as one candy, the way Samantha tried to do. The more structure you build into the holiday, the happier everyone will be.