Halloween is a scary delight for the senses. For the eyes there are glowing jack-o-lanterns, flickering candles, ghosts and goblins, and spooky scenery. The sounds of Halloween, including piercing screams, haunting howls, eerie laughs, and echoing voices, all just as exciting as the visual imagery. And of course, there are the tastes of Halloween, delighful treats of caramel corn, sugary candy apples, and chocolates and candy sweets of all kinds. Halloween is fun for all kids young and old, but not for my son, who has autism. The sweet rewards of Halloween are obtained simply by knocking on the door and saying “trick or treat” – easy for every kid, except for my kid, who has autism. Or so it felt to me that first year.
We did not rush N into Halloween, we waited until N was 7 at which time he seemed to have some ability to comprehend. I knew Halloween might frighten him, and would certainly confuse him, I but I wanted him to be able to participate, and I wanted him to enjoy it. That first year, it was an unusually warm evening for end of October. Our street hosted its usual extravagant display of graveyards, vampire coves, haunted houses, witches’ dens, giant illuminated blown-up pumpkins and ghosts, blinking eyeballs in the bushes, creepy music and so on, a show which typically attracts hundreds of costumed visitors every year. This year due to the great weather the kids began their rounds before darkness had fallen, so pumpkins were hastily lit, bowls of candy were brought outside along with folding chairs and cushions for front steps, and everyone sat outdoors to be social and enjoy the festivities. The scene was set for autistic N’s first HALLOWEEN scare!
Given N’s autism we planned well in advance for the big night. We bought the costume early in October. We did test-drives of the costume: it was an adorable lion costume, with a rather long broom-like tail, which he was quite willing to wear, except for the thickly maned hood, which he swiftly removed after each attempt to slide it onto his head. We practiced carrying the plastic pumpkin candy carrier. We read social stories to prepare him for the sights and explain the process of Halloween. We read simple stories with a Halloween theme. We practiced saying “trick or treat” and rewarding his words with candy in his plastic pumpkin. We did our best to explain something that defied simple explanation.
At last the night we prepared for arrived. It was Halloween! At 6:30pm I opened the front door with N the lion at my side, costumed and ready to go. But N was instantly overwhelmed by the sights and sounds. There were too many costumed people outside, too many ghouls, Darth Vaders, zombies, Screams, skeletons and witches; there were too many strange and spooky decorations; and there was too much noise, between the voices of the trick-or-treaters, and the frightening sounds emitted by the Halloween ornamentations. It was sensory overload for N. He covered his ears, then turned on his heels, and bolted upstairs, to hide.
By the time I found him and had coaxed him back to the front door for another try, it was dark. The sheer number of people and the nature of their appearance was now less obvious and so I managed to get him to follow me out-of-doors to a neighbor’s house. N looked cautiously at the house next door, with its candles and cobwebs: it really did NOT look OK to him. I urged him towards the door. I could see that N was quite wary of the jack-o-lantern and did not want to get too close.
After a few minutes of repeating “don’t worry, its OK, N – you can do it!…go knock on the door….say trick or treat!” he finally went up the steps and tapped gingerly on the door. The door opened. Nick stood there… saying nothing. “Say trick or treat” I coached. The neighbor waited. Silence. Then N started to go inside. “NO! – DON’T GO IN, just say “TRICK OR TREAT” I yelled. UGH! – he’s not getting this!
Then the neighbor showed N the candy bowl and asked him if he would like a treat. “Treat,” N repeated back. So the neighbor put a big handful of treats in his plastic pumpkin. A smile lit upon N’s face. He smiled because in his mind something happened like it was supposed to!
Just then a large group of costumed kids arrived at the steps so N bids a hasty retreat. I urged N to go to the next door.
I did feel a bit guilty about putting N through this bewildering and completely unnecessary experience. Yes, it was about me. He did not want this, I did. I loved Halloween, I wanted him to love it too, even though all reasonable evaluation would conclude that it was not N’s type of thing. I considered my own selfish motivations, I wanting to relive my past, I wanting to raid the children’s Halloween loot bags. But in my defence I knew if he could get over the sensory part, the fact that nothing going on around him made much sense, he himself would thoroughly enjoy the candy.
After the neighbour’s house, N was not ready to go to another house. He stood on the neighbor’s lawn staring at the contents of his pumpkin. He sat down on the grass reached inside. I said to him, “FIRST MORE TRICK-OR-TREAT, THEN EAT!” But N had the proverbial “bird in the hand” and wanted it in his stomach. I watched the other kids shouting and rushing from house to house, while mine sat alone on the lawn focused intently on his plastic pumpkin and its contents. Part of me was sad and longed for him to be one of the normal kids, running and yelling and having fun while gathering more and more loot. That was the selfish me that wanted Halloween on my terms. On the other hand, I realized N was being N, and N does not really get delayed gratification, he does not get greed either . In the later case – I did not want to teach that to him, EVER. Is it not better to be happy with what we have, than to want more and more? This is N at his most inspirational, and I was threatening to ruin it.
That first Halloween year we visited 3 houses in total, over the course of the evening. That was good enough for me and for him. At the third house, with a little prompt, N succeeded in saying something like “trick a tree”. I was really proud of him!
Last year, N’s third Halloween, he knew what to do, and with minimal advance preparation, and a great “superman” costume, N was ready to go out for some fun, with his special helper Nathan. When we asked him “wanna go trick-or-treating, N?” He echoed the phrase”trick or treat” N and headed for the door! Still came home with a small loot bag but a big smile on his face!