HELP FOR PARENTS OF CHILDREN WITH ASPERGER'S & HIGH-FUNCTIONING AUTISM

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Halloween Precautions for Children on the Autism Spectrum

Do you want to avoid trick-or-treat tantrums and meltdowns?

All kids eagerly anticipate Halloween. It is their night out on the town. They may spend hours planning their costumes, mapping out their trick-or-treat routes, and devising new ways to sort and ration their bag of goodies at the end of trick-or-treating.

Children with Asperger’s (AS) and High-Functioning Autism (HFA) might see this special day differently. The bright and colorful costumes become too much for the eyes, or the decorative outfits are too itchy or obstruct movement. The smell of candles might be repulsive. The noises and flashing lights at the local “haunted house” go beyond an innocent scare, causing some AS and HFA children actual physical discomfort.

Halloween can be fun and exciting, but it can also be very frightening. For example, some AS and HFA children see a clown and think it’s the funniest, greatest thing. Others will look at that clown and think that it’s horrifying. Halloween is the same kind of phenomenon – even more so.

Parents will do well to follow these tips on having a positive Halloween experience for their AS and HFA trick-or-treaters:

1. Bobbing for apples is a popular Halloween activity; however, your youngster may not want to bob for apples. Rather than forcing him or berating him, have your child participate in a way that he is comfortable with (e.g., putting the apples in a bucket). This way, he is still part of the activity, but it’s a comfortable fit.

2. Adapt the party activities. Rather than diving into the slimy insides of gourds to carve pumpkins, decorate them with stickers or paint. Many children on the autism spectrum do not like the usual Halloween events. Some of the typical party fare (e.g., “guess what is in this bowl while blindfolded”) can cause sensory overload – so plan accordingly.

3. Avoid lectures and criticism during this special (and perhaps stressful) day. Focus instead on simple, factual statements of any problem behavior and the consequence (e.g., "Michael, don't walk into the road. Stay on the sidewalk, or we will go home."). Be prepared to act on your consequence if your youngster does not comply. It may be inconvenient, but it is important to follow through on consequences to improve your youngster's compliance in the future.

4. Consider time-outs for any misbehavior. This might mean returning home briefly (5 to 10 min.) before attempting another launch into the treat-gathering experience.

5. Keep it fun. Ignore minor inappropriate behaviors and focus on the most important problem behaviors.

6. Monitor your youngster throughout the Halloween festivities, and try to end the holiday celebrations before he has a meltdown. If you notice he is getting cranky or tense, it’s time to head home. Ending on a high note is crucial to AS and HFA kids’ self-confidence and sense that they had a positive experience.

7. Plan a special activity for AFTER trick-or-treating (e.g., a favorite snack or an age-appropriate movie). Before you begin trick-or-treating, tell your youngster about your plans. Remind her when it is time to go home to engage in this fun activity that is waiting. This may reduce the possibility of a tantrum or meltdown.

8. Kids on the autism spectrum do better when they know what to expect. So read a book about trick-or-treating, and practice at home before the big night. Using “pre-task rehearsal” to teach AS and HFA children acceptable behaviors on the trick-or-treat routes, during parties, etc., is smart parenting. Also, make sure to talk about the holiday and how some things are different on Halloween – and why (e.g., taking candy from strangers).

9. Set a time limit for trick-or-treating, and plan your route ahead of time. Tell your youngster what to expect, how long the journey will last, where you are going, and when you plan to return home.

10. Test the costume, and take your child’s sensitivities into account. Have your child try on his costume to make sure the outfits aren’t too itchy, tight or stiff, and that he can move easily in it. If he doesn’t like having things touch his face, don’t include make-up or a mask. If he is physically uncomfortable, he won’t have fun trick-or-treating, and you risk putting him in meltdown-mode.

11. Trick-or-treating simply may not work for some children on the spectrum. In this case, pick what works for your family. If it’s not trick-or-treating, tell your youngster you are celebrating by decorating pumpkins or jumping in the leaves – or make it about celebrating fall with apple-picking and a hayride (last year, we stayed home and made candy apples – the evening worked out just fine!).

12. Try to reward appropriate behavior and apply consequences to problem behavior as soon as it happens and as consistently as possible. It takes a lot of mental and physical energy to keep up with impulsive “special needs” kids, but if you fall behind, your interventions will be less successful and may not help at all.

With a little preparation and planning, AS and HFA children with sensory difficulties can have a positive and memorable Halloween experience. Good luck - and have fun!

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