How to Make Halloween More Inclusive for Children With Special Needs
A few years ago I was coordinating a party for my child’s fourth grade classroom, where 20 percent of the students had food allergies. I gently reminded parents that the goal was for all our children to be included, to be safe and have fun. I was perplexed when one parent refused to change the cookie decorating idea she had. “Kids who can’t make or eat them can at least enjoy them for how cute they are,” she said.
In what I believed was a teachable moment, I reminded her that it still excluded them and also created a potentially dangerous situation. This parent became so incensed that she quit the committee. While I still get as excited about Halloween as the next guy, I was horrified that there was a parent who was willing to not only exclude children, but risk their safety because she was so excited about her adorable witch hat cookie project.
Halloween has become the holiday where children with differences have the potential to be the most left out. The numbers of children with food allergies and other differences have risen sharply since I was a child. As a parent of kids with food issues and also autism, it took me many years to figure out ways to adapt the holiday so it was still fun. Turns out, there are lots of ways to do this both as parents and as community members. Here are some of the top ideas to make Halloween still the coolest holiday ever.
a) Parents: Sort out the candy together so you can help teach your child what is OK to eat. Have the “Switch Witch” visit later that night and exchange the bag of candy full of offending allergens with a present. Your child will be thrilled to have the best of both worlds. And hey, there is no rule that says the Switch Witch can’t give you that bag to stash away and secretly eat after the kids are asleep.
b) Supporters: The Teal Pumpkin project is a new idea sweeping through social media. If you paint a pumpkin teal and have it on your front porch, it will alert parents of kids with food allergies that you have an alternative available. Also, for class parties, ask about allergens — be sure to ask about brand specifics and preparation as that can all play a role in safety. Please remember what it would be like to be 8 years old and everyone gets to eat really cool-looking cupcakes except you.
a) Parents: Respect your child’s sensory difference. If noise is an issue, avoid those homes that go all out for Halloween; a “jump scare” could end an evening of fun. Costumes are not always made out of the finest of materials; let your child try a number of options until one feels right. Contact your local support groups for special needs — there may be sensitive Trunk or Treat nights available which may suit your child much better.
b) Supporters: Teachers and room parents — if you have children with special needs in your class, tone down the scary a bit. Spooky music should not be on full blast, and 25 kids in costume might be disorienting. Avoid balloon-popping activities and strobe lights. Have a quiet space outside of the classroom where children can go if overwhelmed.
a) Create visuals to help your child understand what to expect at school parties or trick-or-treat. Try on the costume ahead of time. If your child does not want to participate in Halloween festivities, don’t force them. Other options include throwing a small party at your house with old school fun, inviting two or three friends for trick-or-treating, sticking to familiar neighbors homes and buddying up with a child who can model.
b) Supporters: If a child does not say “trick-or-treat” or “thank you” he may not intend to be rude. He may not be able to speak or fully understand what is expected of him. The same goes for a child who appears too large or too old for trick-or-treating. If a child grabs a handful of candy or doesn’t seem to know what to do when you hold the bowl out, give them a prompt or offer to help them. Their fine motor skills may be impaired, and picking one or two candies from a dish might be difficult. Compliment an aspect of their costume even if it seems incomplete. This is still their Halloween too!
Those of us who try to make our kids with differences feel included no matter what can get very good at scooping up the world around us, tying it in a different bow and re-presenting it to our kids. Halloween is no different. With the help of our community, little changes can make all the difference between Halloween being fun or being truly scary.
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