BY: Janis Gaudelli – “Champion of Truths, Unicorns & AWE-tism”
You would think a candy junkie like me would love Halloween. When I was a kid, I lived for it, but as I grew older, the lure and excitement subsided. As an adult, I was never one to seek out a costume unless I absolutely had to. It just wasn’t my thing.
That all changed when I became a mom, as I looked forward to taking Kellan trick or treating and having him dress up in a costume of choice. In fact, I purchased Kellan’s first Halloween costume when he was still in utero. You can’t get any more excited than that! I was thrilled to revisit this day of tricks and treats and so was Kellan… or so I thought.
On the morning of October 31, 2011, I opened my eyes to a 2-month-old cooing in his crib. I was ever so excited for what the day would bring: tricks, treats, and my baby boy dressed up like a pumpkin. We had things to do and people to see, so when late afternoon came upon us, I started getting him ready. As I dressed him in his plush, pumpkin onesie, he started to squirm and cry and I couldn’t understand why. I took a quick picture and after an hour of him being uncomfortable, I changed him back into his regular clothes, thinking to myself, “there’s always next year.”
October 31, 2012: Cue a repeat of 2011, except Kellan was dressed as a cute little lion… for exactly 37 minutes before I took it off.
October 31, 2013: Kellan was in preschool, and it was his first school parade. Kids his age joyfully dressed up as pirates and Batman and princesses, excited for the day ahead. Kellan, on the other hand, was anything but. My little Superman was not having it. He marched teary-eyed in the parade and, once it was over, immediately wanted to be stripped of his cape. I started to think that Halloween was Kellan’s kryptonite.
It was about that time when I vowed to not put Kellan through this dress-up ordeal again. I felt like I was doing it more for my pleasure than his own, and he was paying the price. I decided I would invest in a cute, festive Halloween shirt and put him at ease, but deep inside I just didn’t get why he was so agitated on a holiday most kids declare to be their favorite. Little did I know I’d receive my answer just a few months later…
In April of the following year, Kellan was diagnosed with Autism. Even at that point, I didn’t realize how challenging a “fun” holiday like Halloween could be to a child on the spectrum. It wasn’t until I started to do some research and talk to parents in the community that I began to understand. Halloween for Autistics is much more tricky and not always a treat. What I learned made so much sense based on Kellan’s past Halloween experiences:
Fabrics are Frightening: Sensory issues are very common among people with autism. Some have hypersensitivity to sounds, smells, visuals and/or fabrics. Most Halloween costumes are not made for sensitive, sensory-challenged children, so this eliminates a lot of costume options. Kellan will not wear jeans, clothes with buttons, snaps or zippers to this day. So, while he has a very comfortable, casual wardrobe, finding a Halloween costume is tricky. With that said, special needs parents have to tap into their creative superpowers to piece together a costume for their child.
Accessories are Alarming: Much like fabrics, children with sensory issues have a hard time with anything on their face, head, hands, and feet. This eliminates many costumes with masks, hats, gloves, makeup, etc., and makes Halloween costume choices so very limiting. Kellan was Sheriff Woody one year without his infamous cowboy hat and Batman without the mask another year. You learn to pick and choose your battles.
Sheriff Woody sans Cowboy Hat This costume was actually Batman PJs
Stranger Danger: Anything unfamiliar and not on the typical daily schedule causes major anxiety for a child on the spectrum. Therefore, the traditional trick or treating process where a child goes up to a stranger’s home and asks for candy doesn’t always look/feel the same. Getting an autistic child to approach a home he is unfamiliar with, much less greet the people who live there, is likely to cause a gremlin-like meltdown. Put it this way: Kellan is now 7, and this is the first year we will even attempt trick or treating. Wish us luck!
Scary=Shit Show: There are a lot of sights, sounds, smells and environmental shenanigans that take place on Halloween. Kids on the spectrum get overwhelmed and many times overstimulated, which can lead to a scary house of horrors. You will see many special needs parents actively research non-scary Halloween-centered activities, as well as draft a detailed map of the neighborhood, noting specific houses to avoid on the big night. I have designed my map, and any spooky decorations or scary sounds will be avoided like the plague (unless they’re giving out Skittles…hahaha…kidding!).
At this point, you can understand what I meant when I said, “Halloween is much more tricky and not always a treat.” This holiday poses its challenges, but we try to make it work as best we can. We just ask the general public to be more accepting of our norm. However, it’s our job to educate and advise those of what might occur during the trick or treating festivities. I just shared why Halloween isn’t a typical holiday for special needs parents and their children, but I also want to serve up a few tips on what to look out for and how to best handle these trick-or-treaters:
#1 Many parents of special needs kids (especially those who are nonverbal) have created cards or pins that their children will be wearing/handing out when they approach your door. The signs/pins are there to instruct and enlighten the candy-giver, so keep an eye out and try to follow the directions (an example of one of those cards are below)
#2 Some children on the spectrum who are verbal might not respond like other kids. They may forego the “trick or treat” or “thank you.” Don’t take offense, because some of their social cues and conversational language skills are slightly delayed.
#3 If a child approaches your house without a costume, or their costume is not all put together (see ‘Accessories are Alarming’ above), please know that there is a reason for it. Try not to ask too many questions. Their parents most likely had a tough time getting them out of the house and to your door, so please just smile, throw some Twizzlers in the bag and send them on their way.
#4 If you experience a child who comes to your door crying and/or anxious, please don’t probe or try to calm them down. Again, anything happening during this highly sensory-active night could have set them off. My best advice when this happens? Just give them some candy and wish them a good night.
#5 Another thing to watch for are children carrying teal plastic pumpkins. Those pails convey that the child has food allergies (some life-threatening). So please, if you see children with these teal pumpkins, please inform the child and parent that the treats you’re giving out may not be allergy-free, before you put anything in their pail.
#6 For parents with neuro-typical children, please communicate to them that every child shows up differently on Halloween (and in life in general). Teach them to exercise kindness, patience, and compassion.
#7 Give candy to big kids too. Some of our kids are mentally delayed, but not physically. This means as they grow, they’re still kids at heart. Look past their size and give them a Snickers.
#8 Be kind. If the world needs anything right now, it’s more understanding and acceptance.
Before I go, I have some exciting news to share: Kellan verbally told me at the beginning of October– without any prompting! — what he wanted to be for Halloween this year. Even more exciting? The costume includes a hat, which he has agreed to wear! But there’s one catch: he alerted me that I needed to dress up too. Me – the chick who wasn’t one for dressing up as an adult, has her costume (which Kellan chose) and is excited to rock it alongside my sidekick (see below). And one other thing, Kellan is going trick or treating for the first time this year. I have no idea how that is going to turn out, but THIS, my friends, is progress! Happy Halloween, and be safe out there.
Janis Gaudelli is The Founder of The Daily Feels. She started this passion project to reveal the magic behind storytelling, and how truth-based narratives bring people together in the most heart-warming of ways. Fascinated by soul, depth, intellect, raw truths and rebellion with a cause. Often captivated by the awe of nature: star gazing, moon manifesting, sunset chasing, waves crashing, crickets singing. Fiercely curious about the inner-workings of the human psyche… she professionally studies human behavior for a living. Forever proud and grateful for being a mom to the force that fuels her life: her 7-year-old son, and greatest professor, Kellan.