A Must-Read, Mamas

Dear Neighbor, You’ll Have Autistic Trick-Or-Treaters Soon. Here’s What Their Parents Want You To Know.

Autism families surveyed share their anxieties around trick-or-treating, and what their neighbors can do to help.

Writer Emma Coblentz takes her kids, two of whom are autistic, trick-or-treating.
Emma Coblentz

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that 1 in 36 kids are receiving autism diagnoses in America right now, meaning that for 1 in 36 families, Halloween can be so much more than a fun night out. There are fears and feelings that arise for a neurodiverse bunch that other families just won’t ever experience (but we wish you’d at least try to understand).

I’m a mom to four kiddos, two of whom are beautifully autistic (one officially and one unofficially). Halloween was once a night I’d break out in hives over, but things have changed, thanks to advocacy work that has gone to bat for my kids.

I asked my online community, most of whom are parents of autistic kids, or autistic themselves, what anxieties surface around trick-or-treating and what they may want their neighbors to know.

Here’s what they shared. Take notes, as the day is approaching.

Autistic kids need to know what to expect.

I wish they would have warnings at the end of the driveway if there will be a jump scare or something moving or noisy — trick-or-treating is fun, but it’s hard to stay regulated when you don’t know which houses are calm and which are going to make you jump. – E.B., mom of two, California

One of the most profound needs of an autistic child is what I call the “need to know.” Way before Halloween has arrived, we’ve circled the date on the calendar for our kids to begin their countdown. We’ve put together social stories and given them plenty of space to see what’s coming so excitement will overtake anxiety.

But there are still things we can’t prepare them for. We don’t know which houses will have a “shock factor” with unexpected noises and/or movement. Things like strobing lights, fog machines, and loud and spooky sounds can cause a meltdown in children who have prepared for so many weeks to “be OK” on this day.

Even with the prevalence of autism, some don’t seem to consider how kids may be impacted by the ways they choose to spookify their homes. Parents have a simple request — put out a sign, or some type of warning if there are surprises coming. Families can choose to move on to the next house if needed, but the solution isn’t to isolate some kids from the trick-or-treating experience by neglecting to caution them.

No more “words for candy” (autistic or not).

“If my kid doesn't say ‘trick or treat’ or ‘thank you’ that is because they have a disability, not because they're being rude.” – Stony A., mom of four, Washington

My child uses a communication device. Many children (and adults) use communication devices — two million in fact, according to recent data. But we know that number is much larger. Alongside those who communicate by device, are those who experience “selective mutism”, which is defined by the Child Mind Institute as when “children are unable to speak around certain people or in certain settings.”

Because you won’t always know which children are nonspeaking, or have social anxiety, why require words for candy from any child? How about removing the pressure once and for all? How about just... opening the door to hand out treats?

“I wish they knew that with a little acceptance, they could make my child feel comfortable.” – Yendi Tello, mom of one, California

Don’t judge or infantilize our autistic teens.

“He's nearly 6' tall and he dresses as a favorite childhood character along with his service dog... We still go door to door with him and he wants it that way at 14 years old.” – Melinda N., mom of one, Maryland

Parents everywhere are trying to figure out when the exclusion of teens from trick-or-treating started. It seems that when a child turns 13, it’s no longer socially acceptable for them to be enthusiastic about Halloween. It’s like this thing in the air, this discomfort from those handing out the candy. “Why are you even here?” is how it feels.

As annoying as that is, my autistic teen is sure to ignore the memo. There’s no stopping her from dressing up and banging on your door, not even the stares. It’s usually true that the loudness of her costume matches the excitement in her squeals. And you’d be surprised by how many adults are uncomfortable with how much space she takes up.

But there’s a flip-side to this reaction, no better than the first. Some people’s default when encountering an autistic teen is to infantilize them. Add to that nonspeaking, and I can just hear the baby talk before it even starts. “Oh my goodness, do you love Halloween? Oh, no touch, thank you.” Oh, how my blood boils.

Infantilizing: Treating someone as a child or in a way that denies their maturity in age or experience.

Most people mean well, but it really affects our kids. They notice the difference in treatment. I watch my daughter’s head — once held high — drop an inch with every one of these interactions. Changing this is simple: talk to my autistic teen the way you would your teen.

Consider safer candy options.

My eldest daughter literally thought organic fruit snacks were candy until she was 7 because she couldn't eat anything else. – Lexi B., mom of four, California

These numbers are nearly a decade old, but in 2016, about three times the number of autistic kids reported food allergies compared to their allistic peers (11.25% to 4.25%).

I don’t think I know an autistic child who doesn’t have at least one of these allergies: egg, soy, wheat, dairy, peanut, corn, and/or a dye intolerance. These allergies affect behavior drastically. I’ve heard many parents joke that it takes weeks to get their kid back after trick-or-treating. They’d rather have a rough few days than exclude their child. We can do better by these kids.

Allergies aside, we’re still handing out candy banned in other countries, like Skittles and Nerds. We can do better by all kids.

Here are some safer options to consider handing out this year:

The smartest thing to do (IMO) is get a mix of all to save some money.

To cap, Halloween can be overwhelming for families with vulnerable kids. After a night of their kids being herded around, focused to speak, and handed candy they can’t even eat, many parents wonder why they keep doing it. That answer is simple: Autistic kids love Halloween too, and we need to do a better job of including them.

See you out there.