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I Wouldn’t Change a Thing About How We Celebrated Halloween With My Son With Autism

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If I could do my life over, I’d be a party planner.

There are few things I enjoy more than preparing a celebration, like the Halloween party for children with special needs I led for our township last weekend. I spent weeks arranging details for crafts, games, decorations and snacks so the event would run with ease. Thanks to a host of generous volunteers, I think it did.

Celebrations with my own family, however, didn’t always turn out as planned. The blueprints for gaiety in my mind were rarely executed as intended by Daniel, my little boy with autism. He had his own ideas.

Take birthdays, for example. I strove to make them festive occasions in our household, involving favorite meals, helium balloons and a musical birthday plate for the guest of honor.

Daniel, however, was unimpressed. One year he actually developed a physical aversion to birthday cake. He wanted no part of the homemade confections brought forth for other family members, shoving his slice away with the back of his wrist, lest the offending substance touch his bare hand.

Undeterred, I concocted for his own birthday a dessert comprised solely of Daniel-approved foods. When the big moment came, he regarded the lopsided, cake-shaped mass of whipped cream and Oreos with a striking lack of enthusiasm, but deigned to blow out the candles and accept a slab without bolting from the table in horror.

I nearly wept with joy.

Halloween, on the other hand, was one celebration I could count on to at least resemble the typical-family ideal I aimed for when my children were young.

Daniel learned quickly that orange decorations meant a trip to Didier Farms, where he opted without fuss for the first pumpkin he saw. He enjoyed the jack-o’-lantern creation process, squeezing the slick pulp between his fingers, planting the votives firming inside the hollowed shells, then sitting outside, arms crossed and focused, to study the flickering candlelight winking from the pumpkins aligned by the door.

He tolerated every costume I devised for him, from baby cow to cowboy, green M&M to white, floaty ghost. He expressed no preferences, but he never balked at my selections, even the regrettable Mr. Potato Head ensemble of 1997, a choice bitterly scorned by my daughter, which I’ll never live down if she has anything to say about it.

Daniel didn’t mind it, though. He marched out the door, clutching his plastic pumpkin with enviable nonchalance, touring the neighborhood with his dad and sister, who swallowed her shame and behaved with typical loyalty to her little brother.

I see them still, their eager, costumed figures heading down the sidewalk as dusk settled in with Natalie holding Daniel’s hand protectively in her own. “Say ‘trick or treat,’ Daniel,” she coaxed as each door was opened. “‘Trick or treat!’” Sometimes he’d utter a proximation of the phrase, but more often just grabbed for the goods while Natalie issued a thanks for both of them before hurrying to the next house in line.

Described later by their father, Jeff, who guided them while I manned our own front door, these scenes are as vivid as if I’d been standing beside them: the warm glow of light spilling from doorways onto their expectant faces, Daniel reaching without fanfare into the offered bowl, Natalie gently coaching him, their unique bond deepening, all on its own.

I couldn’t have drawn a more perfect picture if I tried.

In the blink of an eye, Natalie was spending Halloween with friends, and Andy, her and Daniel’s step-father, assumed trick-or-treat duty in the new neighborhood we moved to when Dan was 9.

He wasn’t a little boy anymore, but I wasn’t ready to pare down his Halloween experience, even if he showed no great interest in participating one way or another. Of course, I usually claimed the cushy job, parked at home by the front door while dispatching my husband to herd Daniel up and down the street.

This become a bit challenging as Daniel grew older, his abrupt behavior more startling, at age 11 or 12, to neighbors unfamiliar with his autism. People were sensitive to Daniel’s quirks, though, recognizing his differentness and treating him with tender, respectful indulgence. Few begrudged his mute grabs for candy or lack of thanks, which we supplied on his behalf.

But in just a few years, trick-or-treating held less appeal for Daniel. Having graduated to a more sophisticated vampire costume, he was nonetheless ready to head home after just a few houses, content to pass the evening peering over my shoulder at the children crowding our doorstep, now and then holding the candy bowl himself as careful selections were made.

He was growing out of the Halloween of his childhood, just like his typical peers. I only needed to follow his lead.

I knew what he was missing, though: The “Halloween Hoopla” extravaganza held each year by our park district; the haunted house teens from our church navigated together, shrieking in feigned terror; the noisy packs of adolescent boys, jostling down the sidewalk, eyes open for girls, collecting the loot they pretended not to care about anymore.

These rites of passage were not right for my son, but I mourned their loss just the same.

Daniel had his own game plan, though. He was satisfied with the handfuls of candy he swiped behind my back; the roasted pumpkins seeds he surprised me by enjoying, crisp and salty and warm from the oven; our talking candy bowl with the green motion-sensing hand that lunged forward as he reached, giggling, for another Tootsie Pop.

He didn’t regret the pages lost from my Halloween blueprint. He didn’t even know they’d been drawn, and that was all right with him. And so, in time, it became all right with me.

My kids have been out of the house for several years, but I still decorate it for Halloween. It reminds me of those simple, unguarded days, the celebrations that ran smoothly, better than I could have planned.

While publicizing last week’s Halloween party and recruiting volunteers, I often told people that I wish there’d been a party like this available when my son was young, a lower-key event where differences don’t matter and kids and parents can relax and enjoy the celebration in a setting tailored for their needs.

Yet this isn’t precisely true.

I’m thrilled to lead this event each year, providing an experience that seems to be appreciated by the community. But I wouldn’t change a thing about my own children’s Halloween experiences.

Those memories are pretty much perfect, just as they are.

Follow this journey at Good Marching: Experience in Autism and the Rest of Life.

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Originally published: October 25, 2016
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