Dressing up and going trick-or-treating is an exciting time for children and is a night they look forward to all year. Unfortunately, if you have a special needs little one, this can be a scary and frustrating experience for them if not handled correctly. I grew up with a younger sister, Bethany, who has Down syndrome, and have seen first hand what chaos improper preparation can create. If the child is not ready for the events of the day, they can end up having a difficult time, and parents may find themselves having to cut the night’s festivities short because their little one is over-stimulated and frightened.
The goal is to make Halloween a fun experience for the whole family. This can be especially tricky for a family where one child has special needs and the others do not. In addition, when your children are young, Halloween should be a family event, spent together. This can be hard if your special needs child is unable to physically and mentally keep up with their brothers and sisters. To help families in a similar situation, here are some successful methods my mother used to keep all six of us focused and having fun together on Halloween.
First, my sister Bethany, besides having Down syndrome, already had it rough being the youngest of six children. Without her disability she had five other kids to compete and keep up with. I’m not going to lie; the older ones were always tougher on the younger ones! To help prepare her for the upcoming holiday, my mother always sat down with her a week beforehand and discussed what the holiday was about. For young children this can be as simple as asking, “Halloween is next week, do you know what that means”. Giving the child the opportunity to tell you what they know is the best way to start.
Next, prepare them everyday by discussing the approaching holiday during regular activities. Most notably, bedtime was the best place. The child is calmed down and ready to relax for the evening. I suggest reading them a story each night about Halloween. The best part is that if your child has a favorite television show it is likely a book will be available about the character’s Halloween adventure. If they do not have a favorite, I personally suggest Go Diego Go and the Little Einstein’s Halloween Adventure books.
Another option is to create a linked chain of colored paper (use orange and black) and allow them to take off one link each day. This allows for them to ease into the holiday and have its arrival on their mind. This way you will not over stimulate the child by just waking them up on Halloween morning and having things not be the same. Most special needs children thrive on consistency and routine- you do not want to vary from that without giving them time to consider that for one day things may be different. Realize that most special needs children process information at a slower pace, so be sure to give them adequate time to think about what you are saying.
Discuss trick-or-treating with them ahead of time. If possible, have them practice at a friend’s house with a sibling or another child in their age range. This will help them build confidence in the task, and give you time to see how they will react to trick-or-treating. Don’t stress if you feel that your child may not be ready to go out this year; it takes time and they can always try again next year.
In order to prevent a fit every-time they want a piece of candy, my mom used to have all us (my sister included) take sandwich bags and put three pieces in each. We got one bag a day and could eat the candy anytime after dinner but before eight at night. This helps the child measure out what candy they can eat and hopefully prevent arguments about having another piece.
Lastly, if you do have other children in addition to your special needs child, make sure you sit down with them and discuss how things will go and what behavior will be tolerated and what will not. You do not want your child to regret having a special needs sibling and believe he or she is holding them back from having fun so it is important that they participate in the usual activities of their peers. Explain to them that they need to be sure to include their sibling in the trick-or-treating, but then give them some space afterward to hang out with their friends while you entertain your special needs child. While this may be a juggling act, let me assure you that your children will benefit from having a special needs sibling and will develop patience and understanding as long as you give them time with their sibling and time to be with children of their own ability.