Halloween with the Autistic Child

autism-awareness-mini-ribbon-car-magnetHalloween is coming fast! Holidays are often confusing times for the autistic child. They want to participate like everyone else, but too much change in routine or clothing can create problems. While older, less-impaired children can have input into what they like or don’t like, what do you do with the young or more severely-impaired child? As the parent of a profoundly impaired son with autism, here are some of my holiday-saving tips:

1) It’s okay to say to no. Autism is fickle second to second. Halloween was a snap last year, this year everything is a meltdown. It’s okay to skip this year. Next year may be a winner again. If all else fails, have the child stay home and pass out the candy.
2) Keep costumes simple. No masks. Little to no face paint. Nothing that feels unnatural. Nothing out of the ordinary like giant wings or high heeled shoes. No gloves to decrease already shaky sensory input. No strings or fringe to obsess on. No beads that can be picked off and eaten. Make sure sleeves are close-fitting. Flapping is an issue with some children: don’t risk accidents in this season of open candles.
3) Allow the child the right to say no. If there’s a decoration at a house that scares them, allow them to skip that house.
4) Keep it short. Participating doesn’t mean you have to hit every house in a two-mile radius. The year of the October Blizzard, rockford-peaches-mens-jerseywhen no one had power for Halloween and the festivities were “canceled”, it was impossible to explain the situation to my younger foster son. We dressed him up anyway, stopped at both grandparent homes and a neighbor who was in on it, and he got to “trick or treat” on that all-important correct day. Three houses was enough. Meltdown avoided.

So what do you do, then? How can you have a costume without all the cool trappings? Keep it simple, keep it real. J. has a  baseball jersey. Paired with a ball cap and a pair of matching sweatpants, he’s gone as a baseball player several times. The clothes are normal to him. Firemen. Policemen. A barbecue chef in an apron. A nurse or doctor in scrubs. Any community job you can show the child in a book and they can relate to. Dancers, the lady who cuts hair, the bus driver, a mommy with a doll and a stroller or shopping cart. Bob the Builder, with a pair of jeans, a plaid shirt, a tool belt, and a yellow hard hat. Very simple, very easy.

fp-pumpkin-ponchoIf you want to get fancier, create something easy that goes over their clothes. We have an orange fleece poncho with a pumpkin face made out of felt and glued on the front. A couple of felt leaves and a brown stem sewn to a green hat, and we had a pumpkin costume. Because it’s a fleece poncho, it’s not only warm, but fit for several years. A cat costume out of black clothing, a pinned-on tail, and felt ears either glued to a headband or a hat.  A hobo clown, with mismatched plaid shirt, baggy jacket, and ragged pants with a rope belt and touch of red makeup to the nose was another year. Many times kids like capes, so an all-black-clothing Batman with a cape and a hood, or a vampire in white shirt, black pants and cape, and a red ribbon “Medal” made of tinfoil are often well-tolerated. One year we found a Hoodie with skeleton bones on it, added chalk “bones” on a pair of black sweatpants and we’d found our every-day-clothes costume.

Halloween doesn’t have to be a meltdown. Keep it simple, keep it calm, both for your child and yourself. Explain the day as you go: We will stop at ten houses and ask for candy, then we will go home. Try extra-hard to stop only at the homes of people your child knows; for a child with no awareness of stranger-danger, you want to reinforce who is safe and who is not. If all else fails, stay home, play some Halloween music, watch Charlie Brown,  and try again next year. It will get better.

Susan reads: The Autistic Brain by Temple Grandin

[Cover]I avoid books on autism. I don’t like the terminology of the “autism spectrum” and the snake oil cures that celebrities like to flaunt.  I have worked with the seriously autistic for more than 25 years – the hard-core institutionalized kind – and have little tolerance for someone who thinks their child is autistic simply because he’s an introvert.  And for the last 30 years I’ve had a profoundly impaired autistic foster son, and all that happy information for the mainstreamed four year old who might have Asperger’s does not apply to hard autism. Thus, I have avoided reading anything by Temple Grandin, the Holy Saint of autism.

My bad.

In The Autistic Brain, Grandin discusses very rationally the numerous scientific studies done on communicative autistics, how they often have an inner thinking self and an outer acting self, and how the two don’t often interact. The current psychiatric labels, she feels, do autistics a huge disservice by lumping so many people under one umbrella no one can tell who is who – and leads to misdiagnoses and disproportionate numbers. She discusses how functional MRI imaging shows the different ways different autistics perceive the world, and that one type of treatment will not work for all, and that it’s the brain that’s the issue, not the psychoanalysis. That reiterated some serious studies I had read years ago.  She talks about the part genetics plays, and how research has shown some links, but no answers at all.  Grandin stresses that education for autistics – whether the high-functioning Aspie who will find success in Silicon Valley or the non-verbal autistic who cannot dress himself independently – needs to focus on what strengths the person has, not what deficits, and that deficits can be improved by using strengths, and that these children, no matter what the functioning level, need to get out into society and learn even rudimentary social skills, for that is the only way they will ever progress.

Grandin’s discussion of picture-thinkers, pattern-thinkers, and word-fact thinkers set my mind reeling to the hundred or so autistic children I have worked with, and the lightbulbs went on over my head. I thought about things I have tried, things that have worked, and things that have failed in a whole new light, and cannot wait to try new trajectories w/ my son. Grandin made me feel good that we have defied the “experts,” taking my son – whom no group home would touch because his behaviors were so severe – to places like Manhattan, Baltimore, Boston, boats, trains, weddings, and more – with a 90% success rate.  She made me understand how J. can do things no “autistic” is supposed to be able to do. I cannot recommend this book enough to anyone dealing with an autistic person of any functioning level.  Thank you, Temple, for understanding.  You’ve taught this old dog some new tricks without all that quick-cure quackery, and made a believer out of me.

If you’re dealing with an autistic child, I also highly recommend Barry Neil Kaufman’s book Son-Rise, about his own autistic child. If you can, read the original version.  His later version (The Miracle Continues) delves too deeply into his new-age self-help foundation while the original deals only with his son.