I Saw My Son With Autism Not Dressed Up for Halloween. His Teachers Saw Something Else.


I am one of those people who truly loves Halloween — not the spooky, scary side of the celebration, but costumes… oh yes I love costumes. Give me a reason to dress up, whether it’s halloween or a theme party, and I am 100% committed. When I was a child, I bugged my parents for months leading up to the big day of October 31 by evaluating every possible costume I could potentially dress in that year. By the time the actual date rolled around most of my family was exhausted by my obsession with perfecting just the right attire for the big night.

Like so many parents, I looked forward to sharing these experiences with my own children. When I had my first son, I was elated to be able to dress him up in costume; he was an adorable 4-week-old pirate, a 1-year-old lobster and a 2-year-old Cookie Monster (even if he wouldn’t keep the head on). It wasn’t always easy figuring out how to maneuver a baby into these ridiculous ensembles, but the pictures are treasured, and my love of halloween, costumes, and trick-or-treating remained.   Then my son turned 3, and it all came to a screeching halt. 

While we had been engaged with early intervention and various therapies since my son was 18 months old, it was right around his 3rd birthday that we received the official diagnosis. Our son is on the autism spectrum. Nothing had changed yet, everything had changed. Many of the simple day-to-day ritual or family outings that most people take for granted were already not part of our norm for a variety of reasons, including our child’s sensory issues, meltdowns or challenges in large groups of people. Yet somehow the notion that Halloween would no longer be a cause for fun and celebration was simply not something I had considered.

That Halloween when my son was 3 we just barely got him into a t-shirt that resembled a pirate costume. He had the hat, eye patch and sword in the wagon next to him, but it was enough to feel as though we were a part of the day. Then last year, when he was 4, it became apparent that my grand plans for family-themed costumes and our first opportunity to attend a halloween parade at his pre-school were simply not going to go as planned, or at least not according to my expectations. The parade included every grade of the elementary school from pre-k through third, and it was wonderful. The kids looked great, the parents were out in full force, cameras were flashing at every turn, and the school did a wonderful job. When my son’s class came out I waited with anticipation. I had not been able to convince my son to wear his costume to school but sent a note to his teacher that morning explaining it was in his backpack and that I thought there was a good chance seeing the other kids in his class dressed up would make him want to participate.

As his class entered the parade every single child was in costume… except my son. He was wearing an black Adidas running outfit that was to be the underneath of his costume. I could feel or at least imagined I felt other parents wondering who the poor kid was whose mom forgot about the parade and costume. I could barely choke back tears as I realized yet again how different our experience was compared to other people’s, but I proudly stood by clapping and waving and taking pictures of my little guy.

Needless to say the actual night that followed also did not go according to plan; my themed family costumes of Ghostbusters with our younger son dressed as the Stay Puff Marshmallow Man did not appeal to my older son. We tried again and again to no avail, and by the end of it he was so out of sorts (and so were we) that we never even made it out to trick-or-treat. This was not my finest moment as a parent. I had focused so much time and energy on creating a Halloween experience that would meet every Pinterest expectation that I forgot to focus on what was really going on in the mind and world of my child. He doesn’t like costumes, he doesn’t like to pretend he is anyone other than who he is, he loves imaginary play, but we can’t call him Captain Charlie or Superman because then everything goes downhill. I may not get it, but I can and have certainly learned to accept it.

The following Monday I received several pictures of the school parade via our parent email with countless notes from his teachers, aides and therapists all telling me that due to his sporty retro-sweatsuit combined with his good looks they all decided he was dressed as Ben Affleck from “Good Will Hunting.” I laughed and cried with these notes because it humbled me and made me realize that how we choose to look at a situation and how we choose to celebrate regardless of what is the “expected norm” matters more than what we think should happen.

His teacher told me she was so proud of how my son had walked in the parade, how he stayed with his class and held hands with his two friends the entire time. He didn’t freak out at the number of family members crowding the area or cheering and yelling. He simply stayed with his group and smiled the whole time, and he had fun doing it.  

So here we are in October yet again. Normally I would have started thinking about costumes at least a month ago, but this year I have decided to step back and see what happens. My son told me he wants to be an astronaut, and I think that is great. We will go pick out a costume together, he may or may not wear it and we may or may not make it out to trick-or-treat. If we make it out that night and he is not in costume, I will not worry about what people think or if anyone is annoyed at giving candy to a child who is not dressed up or may not make eye contact. None of it really matters to me any more. The realization that we are creating our own family memories and traditions that may look nothing like what we thought they would but are uniquely special in their own right is all I need.

Image via Thinkstock.

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