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October 5, 2010

How to Prepare Your Child with Autism for Halloween

Halloween is a time for one of the best childhood celebrations. Why, with all the tricks and treats they get to horde during the three or four hour evening; then trade their treats through various techniques of negotiation, can be exciting and  fun. The trading event  may be accompanied by meltdowns (or they cannot make it through the event at all).  Turns out that too many changes and the Halloween procession is generally too fast for the spectrum child to follow. Accompanied by episodes of indigestion, and more meltdowns because the child suddenly is expected to pack away the rest of the treats for later consumption.

How the spectrum child perceives the sweet ending ends up as a nightmare for his/her parents.  Your Halloweem ghost or goblin turns on his/her true color, when (s)he is asked that the candy not all be consumed in one sitting. But, your spectrum child can only see and taste the goodness of the sweets. After all, the evening is sensory stimulating and orally rewarding.

The spectrum child has also just unlearned the one social rule that “you do not ask for treats at someone else’s house”.  But, by  breaking this rule, the child quickly learns that (s)he can get sweet treats from neighbors all the way up and down the block, and back again in one sweep.  This “sweet treats” night turns frightful after perhaps much of  the candy has been consumed.

Now the confusion sinks in, and nightmares begin for both child and parents.  Your spectrum child is sensory overstimulated and you are exhausted.  The fun is over!

Here’s how I prepare my child for his one “free” sweet evening.

1)  I remind myself to keep the rules set forth.  For example, at our house we are not to discuss Halloween until the month of, and if able, hold off until closer to Halloween itself (this is used for all holidays, birthdays, special days, etc).  Eliminating the longer span of time otherwise cognitively spent on discussing the “special days” helps reduce our son’s obsession.  Use a calendar and set the date for when you all decide Halloween discussions/negotiations can begin.  On October 1st, our son is allowed to start crossing off the days on the calendar, until Halloween arrives.  He is not allowed to talk about any aspect of Halloween until the day of Halloween itself.  When he does he loses points from his “fantasy minutes” he is allowed to earn each day to watch a parent/adult supervised TV program.

2)  I write a Carol Gray social story, germaine to the specific celebration, that my child and I can read together.  For example, in the case of a Halloween evening, I will include that this is the one time that “it is socially acceptable to ask for treats.  I will only ask for treats from the neighbors I know and only the ones that my parents take me to.  I know that it is never acceptable, and it is unsafe for me to ask for treats from strangers.  It is also not socially acceptable to ask for treats any other time of the year from anyone in my neighborhood, or from people I know, etc.  I know that I never ask for treats from strangers at any time in my life.”  Adapt your story from this diaglogue to fit your child’s level of understanding.  Also, to learn more about Carol Gray’s social story writing go to her web site at www.thegraycenter.com

3)  I keep in mind my son’s level of anxiety, especially since he’s on a special diet, and is very allergic to all artificial food dyes/colors.  He is also sensitive to aspartame, ascesulfane, vanillin (not vanilla), preservatives, etc.  Therefore, Halloween can be a true nightmare at our house.  So, with all anticipation at bay, tools for management in check, and expected limitation for trick or treating secured, etc., the “rules sheet” emerges as our guide.  One example, we refer to the “rules sheet” for what sweets are allowed and what sweets on the list will make him sick.  With additional workable treats (that we buy or make in advance), we trade the sweets one by one.

4)  Along with the “rules sheet”, we also have drawn up a contract we both sign before he goes out to “trick or treat”, when and how much of the treats he can eat each day.  For example, he is allowed so many sweet treats in his lunchbox, and perhaps after school until the sweets are gone. Then we can relax until Thanksgiving when we go through the process again.

5)  I keep the “rules sheet” taped to the right of my computer screen so I get to see it everyday.  So when the going gets really tough, I recall the rules instead of giving in.

6)  We also read the social story a couple of times before our son goes out to “trick or treat”.  This is when we also discuss, in depth, his concerns about “ghosts and goblins”, masks on peoples’ faces, costumes, real vs. unreal, fantasy vs. reality, pranks vs. bullying, etc.

Don’t be afraid to try to make Halloween for your spectrum child a fun one. Being creative and processing according to the child’s level of understanding will enhance the experience.  We also limit “trick or treat” exposure time to daylight hours.  The evening is left to the scariest of “trick or treaters”, and more “mature audiences.”  Be firm with your “rules sheet”.   In my house, one top trick we use is – limit exposure.  Have a happy Halloween.

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