Tricks for Trick-or-Treating
by Laura Maitland
It’s that time of year again. The time of “fallidays” is upon us. That time of year which leads us into a series of special occasions and seasonal events that take us all the way into the new year. Halloween is every dentist’s nightmare, but it does not have to be yours. We are approaching our fifth Halloween with our son who was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder at an early age. As a result of this, he experiences significant difficulty in communicating with others, having effective and meaningful social interactions, has sensory issues related to clothing, and doesn’t always do well with changes in routine. Sounds like we should just skip the tricks and head to straight to the treats? Here are some friendly tips I have learned throughout the years while working with my son Nick. We have gained lots of experience on how best to make it sensory-friendly as well as how to manage a food allergy as my little superhero is also allergic to peanuts!
1. Practice, practice, practice. Anytime we are doing something that is out of routine, I try to create scenarios or “dress rehearsals” where we can practice what is going to happen the day of. For us, this means dressing him and his brother in their costumes, prompting them to knock on the door of the pantry, saying “Trick or treat!”, and rewarding them with an M&M. Silly? Absolutely. Is it helpful? 100%! If you have some awesome neighbors, get them involved in the fun as well, and let them do some real-world practice.
2. Ditch the store-bought costumes and go DIY instead. If costumes are a struggle, store-bought costumes are not your friend. The fabric can be itchy and uncomfortable for any child and they also are not always made breathable or wearer-friendly. On the first Halloween we celebrated with Nick, we bought him this adorable Batman costume. It was one we had ordered online and not done a test run with. On Halloween day, we discovered the top of the costume poofed out around his chest and fastened too closely around his neck. And forget about the full-head mask attached to the cape. Bat-fail. Luckily, after doing some digging through the closet, I was able to come up with something that resembled a pirate, which he readily accepted afterwards. Ever since we have tried to do more DIY which has wound up being more cost-effective and a much more pleasant experience. If you aren’t super crafty, find a friend who is and pay them in candy.
3. Less is more. There is this tendency to over-accessorize when it comes to Halloween. And it’s so hard to resist! From the wigs to the face paint and/or makeup, not to mention the costume itself, it’s easy to forget that your child is the one that has to wear this. Keep it simple, keep them comfortable, and you will have a much better night.
4. Pick something that means something. I know we all get tired of hearing “Elmo’s World” in the background and have enough meaningful messages from Daniel Tiger to last a lifetime. However, if there is a character that your child really responds well to and relates to, pairing it with a special event like Halloween might make it go that much more smoothly. It’s amazing the calming factor a familiar face/visual in their environment can have. Recently for a dress-up day at school, I had Nick go as Daniel Tiger. We kept the outfit simple with just shorts, a red jacket, and a Daniel Tiger hat that already had the ears. This kid normally doesn’t do hats or jackets, but he stayed dressed as Daniel Tiger all day because he just can’t get enough of that furry little friend.
5. Create a plan and stick to it. Talk with your child about the expectations for the night. If needed, decide on a number of houses you will visit before going home. Nothing says you have to hit every house in the neighborhood or even every house on your street. If this whole Halloween thing is a new experience, pick one or two houses to go to and give them lots of praise and encouragement for their efforts.
6. Choose the houses you visit wisely. If the house looks like a scene from the Haunted Mansion, has creepy music playing, and appears to have something lurking in the shadows behind the bushes, that may not be the house to take your child to. Go for the houses with ample lighting, friendly décor, and a welcoming atmosphere. Better yet, take them to a house of a neighbor you have visited previously so you can build on that positive experience and add to it.
7. Make your own rules! As with everything else, it’s about the process not the product. Trick-or-treating is going to look different from family to family and that is perfectly fine! Your child wants to shout “Happy Birthday!” instead of a more traditional “Trick or treat!”? Great. Hand flapping on pumpkins or literally having a moment when they see a fellow Moana? Awesome. Have your guidelines in place, but allow them the opportunity to have fun with it and enjoy the experience. Maybe this will be a teachable moment for other members of our community as well.
8. You may want to consider hanging on to that basket. I’m not going to say who, but I have a friend who thought it would be cute to have her son hold onto the basket in the wagon all night, and let’s just say he attempted to eat the candy through the wrapper.
9. BYOF. Bring your own friend or family member along for the fun! It is always a good idea to have an extra person around when trying something new or out of routine and especially if you have another sibling in tow!
10. Keep calm, and when the kids are asleep, eat all the candy. Okay, maybe not all the candy, but at least the dark chocolate and a mini Snickers or two. You deserve it!
Nothing about Halloween is mandatory. So why do we do it? Maybe it’s the educator in me, but I am always up for a teachable moment. And there are so many great things you can practice on this night. What other day of the year can you go from door-to-door and work on greetings and rehearsing a simple transaction? Of equal importance, it’s teaching flexibility. No matter how much we would like to control the environment our child grows up in, nothing is constant. Even if you choose to stay inside, you will more than likely see the changes in your immediate environment. The constant traffic at the door and the anticipation in the air could be enough excitement for one night. It’s always a good idea to prepare for whatever way you choose to enjoy this night. For me and my family, it’s about spending time together, taking part in a fun tradition, and getting as much practice as we can for teaching some pretty important life skills. And the mini Snickers.
Laura Maitland is an educator with a background in Exceptional Student Education, Early Childhood Education, and Applied Behavioral Analysis. She is a mom of two boys one of which has been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder.