Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Celebrating Halloween with Special Needs Kids

Celebrating any holiday with special needs kids can feel overwhelming.  There can be a lot of adrenaline and intensity at holiday times, unusual changes in diet, and noticeable disruption of routine.  There is also usually a big enphasis on cultural specific ways of celebrating, some of which your child may be unable to participate in or tolerate. 

Here are some Halloween tips:

1. Sensory Issues
If your child has sensory symptoms, pick a costume that makes sense for your specific child.  Avoid things that are itchy, smell "funny", or are too tight.  In contrast, maybe snug parts of a costume feel good to your child.  A hat or turtleneck may help some kids feel more centered and secure.  Having them carry a weighted backpack or some type of accessory with the costume that is heavy can also help kids feel calmer.  Some kids might avoid face paint or masks, while others may like that feeling on their face.  Do the best you can to select what makes sense for your child, and know that you will do your best to plan...and then be flexible when costume time comes if your child won't wear what you had picked out.  Have some options in your head just in case... like plan B...C...and D.

2. Anxiety and Inflexibility
Try using social stories to prepare your child for the unusual things about the holiday.  For example, what happens differently at school or home.  If the child is old enough, have them write a story with you or tell you the story. 

3. Extra Calming Times
Plan extra calming times into your routine a few weeks before and after the holiday.  Maybe your child feels better when they can lay under a table with a heavy blanket and watch YouTube videos.  Maybe they like to play LEGOs in their room with a dim light on. 

4. Learn to Recognize what Behavior Means
For some reason, I'm usually surprised when my son has trouble before and during the holidays.  Even this year...I was not expecting some of the behaviors that have "come out" such as anxiety, wanting to touch and climb on visitors, melting down if he loses a game.  My son can also "lose his words."  Although my son does talk, when he is under stress I hear myself saying more and more "use your words please" and "have you lost your words today?"  My husband reminded me that we need to expect some changes before any holiday or change in routine (e.g. traveling, the beginning or end of school, etc). 

5. Dietary Needs
My son follows a gluten free and casein free diet to help manage some of his autistic symptoms.  We have a game now, that he goes trick or treating, brings back "a stash" and then he comes to my "candy store."  I pretend to be a shop owner and he comes in wanting to trade some of the candy he can't eat, for other treats I have in my store.  Then he has choices and can choose what he likes. 

6. Be Flexible
Sometimes we have high expectations for any holiday and how it should look if it is "good."  We might feel very disappointed if our child doesn't want to wear a costume or leave the house.  Maybe our child prefers to hand out candy rather than going from house to house.  Maybe they won't pose for a picture or meet their friends outside.  Every holiday may be different...every year may be different.  Take pictures when you can and build what memories you can, but let the rest go.  Let it be good in it's own way.  If your child wants to stay home and hand out candy, embrace it.  If they just want to wear face paint but no costume, go for it.

7. Take Care of Yourself
As a parent, you are doing the best you can.  Some other parents may give you advice or feel critical of your child for not looking and acting like everyone else on Halloween.  Maybe your child is nonverbal or won't wear a costume.  Maybe they can't choose a piece of candy from such a huge variety in a large bowl.  It could be that they have trouble self-regulating and grab too much impulsively.  Perhaps they melt down in front of others. Not everyone will understand, but some will.  You may feel alone, but there are a whole community of parents out there who support and embrace you.