How I Made Halloween Fun for My Family

Autism Consortium, October 7, 2014

When I was a kid, I would obsessively count the days until Halloween. I couldn’t wait. The excitement of Halloween was second only to my birthday, which also falls in October. Back then, fall was just one big Me Fest! I remember once getting a really great costume together, a gypsy fortune teller. I had on all kinds of scarves and jewelry, the right hairdo and dress. I was all set.

The problem was, it was only September.

As much as I loved Halloween as a kid, I did not love Halloween as a mom. In fact, I dreaded it. That’s because none of my kids loved it the way I did. And for many years, it was especially difficult to take my autistic son Nat out trick-or-treating, because he was so unpredictable, sometimes aggressive, and always, always, he just did not seem to get what was good about it.

This used to make me miserable. I remember trying to get him to say, “Trick or treat,” and to wait to be told to take candy. Everything joyful about the holiday felt flattened out by the weight of autism. Likewise, I could tell that Halloween was just another meaningless string of orders for Nat. My worst memory of Halloween with my sons is probably an amalgam of different Halloweens, but it went something like this: Nat was around nine and I went with him, his younger brother Max, and Ben—a baby at that time—around the neighborhood along with a horde of friends and their parents. I had a lump in my throat the whole time, which threatened to burst into an ugly mess of tears at any moment. Nat’s autism—his overt difference—and his utter indifference to what was going on made me feel almost nauseated with grief. It was as if I were living as two selves at once: the happy mom accompanying her three lovely boys out on Halloween, reminding them to say “thank you,” and the sad broken-hearted mom wishing that things would just for once go the way I had expected. The one child I could relate to—Max—was already light years beyond us. Max, my typically developing son, was surrounded by friends; ultimately he left us behind and went off with his crowd. And so there I was with my angry baby stuffed in his little peapod costume and spacey Nat, always dressed as Zorro, who only wanted to get home.

I cared so much about being like everyone else back then, but at some point along the way, I let go of the fantasy of My Three Sons having a Brady Bunch-style Halloween. And I started to look hard at my family and figure out what would work for us, what were our common denominators, our must-haves—and what we could dump from our Halloween.

Saying Good Bye to a Brady Brunch Halloween

So my new question for Halloween became: what could we do, as opposed to what should we do? What worked for us, and what did not? Maybe the big family trick-or-treat trek was unnecessary. Maybe all we needed was candy, friends, and pumpkins. And once I shifted my focus this way, the ideas came pretty easily. Okay, what were the family’s most fun activities, Halloween or not? Simple: Creating, Eating, Seeing friends, but on our own terms, our own turf. Being close to home, which was more comfortable for Nat, and more controllable than outdoors activities. Why not? Who says you have to do what everyone else does? Having autism—in fact, having children—in your life teaches you pretty quickly that you have to be flexible, open-minded, and not judge yourself.

In order to survive and maybe even enjoy Halloween, we needed to figure out specific ways to satisfy our particular Halloween needs that would work for our peculiar bunch. Treat preparation is one of our favorite year-round things to do together. We could make a mess and eat the ruins. We had a fulfilling task: we could practice following directions and measuring, working as a team and being creative—after all, it takes a lot of experimentation and cooperation to come up with the best way to make a severed hand out of cake! (See my Autism Mom’s Survival Guide for more info on making this devilish delight.)

Baking is only one way we learned to channel our creativity, though. Every year Max and Ben would decorate the front porch, creating some kind of garish, ghoulish scene of rubber broken limbs, Styrofoam skulls, and a fake crow, all wrapped in cotton spider webbing. This way they would get a bit more out of the holiday than just the one night of trick-or-treating.

Some years we’ve gone even further and gathered friends for a pumpkin-carving party—BYO Pumpkin! I keep it low-key, providing bowls of candy and drinks. Not much else is needed other than big paper bags for the pumpkin guts. Kids can participate once the knife work is finished, because you can use those safe plastic pumpkin-carving tools to make your Jack-O-Lantern. We have the kids draw the design for their pumpkin, lay the drawing right on the pumpkin and use a pin-like tool to punch the pattern directly into the pumpkin, a fairly easy task. This is an easy way to feel like you are celebrating and socializing, without much effort or pressure.

I also knew that if I really wanted Nat to go trick-or-treating I could have made him a “Nat Book,” (see my book Making Peace With Autism, “How to make a crisis story” for step-by-step instructions. Nat Books, or as I also called them, Crisis Stories, are personalized, photographed social stories, turned into little books: taped-together, cut-up photos on folded construction paper. As a little guy, these were far more engaging to Nat than the more abstract Meyer-Johnson stick figures; all families have to find their own best strategies.)

Halloween Happiness

Happily, things change, children grow and become more comfortable with the world over time, and so eventually Nat did understand all about Halloween. He never really felt the need to go trick-or-treating, though, so I would stay home with him, or even better, send him to our Parks and Rec Halloween party. There were plenty of staff there who knew Nat from social group events, and so I could just drop him off—in his Zorro costume, of course. Our town didn’t always have this wonderful resource for teens with disabilities, until some autism parents put pressure on Parks and Rec. But they wanted a place their kids could go, and so they created this social organization, Quest, and partnered with the town. This was not easy, but it certainly helped unite our autism community and make the town more aware of special needs.

Nat’s social group was a godsend, but you don’t need to found a nonprofit to have Halloween fun. And you don’t need to drag a kid to trick-or-treat if he’d just rather stay home and watch videos over and over again. And so what? As long as you find ways to be happy, with him and with yourself, happiness can come from the smallest moments and the slightest changes. Maybe you call a friend that night, and vent. Maybe you watch your favorite old movie even though you have to pause it a million times to answer your doorbell.

As for me, the HallowQueen? How do I have fun on Halloween, given my family life’s limitations? Sometimes I light candles and plug in my Christmas lights, so the house has a festive, moody atmosphere. I play scary music. I let myself eat a lot of candy. I pour myself a glass of wine. I chat with neighbors on my porch.

And most important of all: I always wear a great costume.