Wonderful article…please read it if you have an autistic child…
How to Teach an Autistic Child to Trick-or-Treat
Source: One Place for Special Needs Newsletter, Issue 11, October 2009. Copyright Vickie Ewell
Need to teach your autistic child to trick-or-treat? Learn the best way to introduce Halloween and the steps required to go door-to-door for a fun evening. Autistic children need preparation to deal with the changes that Halloween night brings – not only because of their literal thinking style, but also because the fun and games require them to break some of their rules. It’s confusing for children with autism to knock on the front door, yet not go inside. It’s also confusing to dress up in something different from what they normally wear. While make-believe is often beyond their understanding, if parents take advantage of the child’s interests, break down trick-or-treating into small steps, and use the positive reinforcement automatically built into the activity to motivate, Halloween night can be a pleasurable experience for both parent and child.
Introduce an Autistic Child to Halloween Slowly
Don’t wait until late October to start introducing Halloween. An autistic child won’t be able to adapt that quickly. Begin talking about holiday ideas, activities, and themes several weeks in advance. A good place to start is to go to the public library or bookstore and check out (or buy) several picture books that talk about trick-or-treating, carving pumpkins, Halloween parties, and costumes. Books can interest the child in the idea and introduce some of the important words like “trick-or-treat” and “thank you” that he needs to learn.
Another good way to help children understand is to have them watch a few videos of children going door-to-door on Halloween night. Not only does it help to introduce them to the idea of costumes and the reward involved for participation, but a trick-or-treat video can also serve as an important modeling device when it comes time to teach the child how to do the individual steps.
An important preliminary is to walk the neighborhood and carefully plan the route. There is no room for impulsiveness when sensory issues are involved. To avoid possible problems in advance, make note of which houses look scary, which have bright lights, and which make loud noises. If possible, take the child along so he becomes familiar with the streets and houses, but also to get a sense of his reactions to the various lawn and porch decorations. In addition, take the child’s stamina, strength, and endurance into account when planning the evening. Tiredness or becoming overwhelmed can quickly bring on sensory issues.
If the child appears to be interested in Halloween, at least a little bit, try to get him involved in holiday festivities. Carve or decorate pumpkins, download and print out Halloween coloring pages, visit stores that sell Halloween costumes, and decorate the house. Set up a calendar to show him when the activity will take place. Mark the date with a special sticker, set a time to leave the house, and stick with it.
To feel secure, children with autism need strict rules and structure. Going trick-or-treating is a social activity, and will be stressful, even with a lengthy preparatory period. Always be considerate of the stress the child will be under, and do everything possible to make him feel comfortable.
Teach the Child to Say: “Trick-or-Treat” and “Thank You” First
Teaching autistic children social interaction is difficult. Nothing will bring on stress faster than trying to teach a child something new when he doesn’t know how to do the individual steps. Before beginning the actual rules involved in trick-or-treating, it’s a good idea to have the child learn how to say “trick-or-treat” and “thank you” first. After which, it will be easier to show him where they fit into the activity. Using the books and videos that introduced the child to Halloween can help. When a parent comes to that part in the story, have the child repeat the words themselves.
If the child is nonverbal, or simply cannot (or will not) say “trick-or-treat” and/or “thank you,” a parent has a couple of different options. The easiest option is to say it for him on Halloween night. Another option is to create a sign he can hold up at the appropriate moment. If “trick-or-treat” is placed on one side of the sign, “thank you” can be placed on the other, and the child taught to flip the sign, as needed. A parent can also write the words on a piece of paper with a black marker. After cutting out the words, tape “trick-or-treat” to the front of the child’s costume or shirt, and “thank you” on his back.
How to Break Trick-or-Treating Down Into Simple Steps
To teach an autistic child to go trick-or-treating, parents need to break the game down into a more simplified form. Most behavioral therapies use small steps, and lots of repetition, but parents don’t always understand how to do that. For neurotypical children, learning comes through observation and understanding. Generally, they can visualize an activity as a whole, and learn several steps simultaneously.
But children with autism learn in a different way. They need to focus on one small part at a time, and then put those individual steps into a specific order to perform a given activity. For example, going trick-or-treating breaks down into the following steps:
- Get dressed to go trick-or-treating.
- Leave the house at the set time.
- Walk down the street with family, and stay with them at all times.
- Look for houses that have a porch light on. Those houses are playing the game.
- Walk up to the door.
- Ring the doorbell, if it works, and knock if it does not.
- Wait, until someone opens the door.
- When the door opens, say “trick-or-treat.”
- Hold out candy container.
- Someone will put candy into the container, or ask them to take a piece themselves.
- If they are asked to do it themselves, take one piece only.
- Say “thank you.”
- Turn, and leave, going back to parents.
- Look for the next house that has a porch light on, and repeat.
There are many steps to remember, which is why most autistic kids cannot trick-or-treat without first being taught. Even with weeks of repetition, parents can still expect to do a lot of prompting Halloween night. While social stories and homemade picture books can give autistic children a good understanding of what is going on, parents still have to zero in on one small step at a time before the process begins to become automatic.
Following the Rules for Halloween Night
Once the child has mastered the words “trick-or-treat” and “thank you,” (or the parent has decided he is not capable of learning them this year), the best way to teach him about the steps involved is to start at the beginning. For most parents, that means having their child pick out a costume that won’t set off sensory issues, or make one out of his current clothing, and get used to wearing it. Some children with autism, however, will totally reject that idea, even though they are interested in going trick-or-treating. Follow the child’s lead. If he is not interested in dressing up, don’t make him. Just go on to the next step.
Practicing each step at home, or around the neighborhood, weeks before Halloween night is best. That gives the child plenty of time to adjust to, and learn the new activity. If he is on a special diet, make sure that one of the rules is that he doesn’t eat anything mom or dad doesn’t okay. Practice leaving the house at the set time, walking the neighborhood, and looking for porch lights that are on. Have the child practice ringing the doorbell or knocking on the front door at home, and then waiting patiently for it to open. As the child learns each step, go on to the next one.
Have siblings practice giving out candy, or switch the process around, and let the autistic child have a turn to pass out the goodies. Sometimes, being on the giving end can teach him just as much, if not more, about how the game is played. Remember to praise him, even for partial successes. Getting the child involved in Halloween isn’t about demanding perfection. It’s about teaching him enough that he becomes comfortable with the whole holiday game and enjoys himself. Above all, be patient. Since Halloween comes only one day a year, It can take several years before an autistic child learns the full routine.