Tuesday, October 20, 2015

When Halloween is Not About The Candy

At our house we are counting down the days until Halloween and have been for quite some time. My fourteen-year-old son Tate has autism and he has been texting me reminders about Halloween for months. (See his "checklist" below.) Tate tells me often that Halloween is his favorite holiday. If someone had told me nine or ten years ago that Halloween would someday be Tate’s favorite holiday I’d have been sure they would be wrong. 

The Pumpkin Patch is a Smith
family tradition.
Although Tate did enjoy our annual trip to the pumpkin patch, that was one of the only things he liked about Halloween. When Tate was small he was terrified of the costumes hanging on racks at the stores. We avoided the aisles that displayed the masks and Halloween decorations. The evening of October 31st, Tate’s dad took his siblings trick-or-treating and Tate and I stayed home. Tate’s older siblings had to be careful to leave their masks off their faces until they were out of the house. He just didn’t seem to understand the masks did not change the true identity of the person behind them. Mask off and the kids standing in the room with us were his beloved brothers and sisters. Mask on and they took on the identities of strange princesses, super heroes, and ghosts. Usually, his brothers’ and sisters’ costumes were quite tame but it did not seem to matter much. Tate did not appreciate them at all.

Tate's Kindergarten Halloween Party
Because Tate was in an early intervention program and attended a preschool with typically developing peers, he needed to wear a costume for the school’s Halloween party. The classes walked to several neighboring offices for treats and I wanted Tate to participate. I realized it would be an invaluable learning experience and Tate needed to be able to step outside his comfort zone. But I knew convincing Tate to wear a costume was going to be a bit challenging for us. I had to come up with costumes for Tate those first few years that were similar to his everyday attire. A mask would have been asking too much of Tate. It would have been sensory overload for him. Tate loved hats so I used that to our advantage. That first year of preschool Tate was a cowboy. That required me to buy absolutely nothing as he already had boots, a hat and a western shirt. I’m not sure Tate even understood he was dressed “in costume” that year at all. The year after that he was a magician. I bought a top hat and a plastic wand and attached a small piece of black fabric to the shoulders of his shirt. He actually enjoyed carrying the wand and did not seem to mind the cape at all. In Kindergarten I dressed Tate completely in black, used a washable marker to draw whiskers on his face, put a red and white striped hat on his head and told everyone he was The Cat in The Hat. I feared he would not cooperate when I suggested we use a marker on his face but he surprised me! It helped that Dr. Seuss was Tate’s hero at the time I’m sure. We went through a period of time that year when only Dr. Seuss books were allowed on his bookshelf.

Tate 2013
By the time Tate was in second or third grade he had determined Halloween is a pretty fun holiday. Jack-O-Lantern carving is a highlight of Autumn in Tate's mind. He also loves to dress up in costume now. His ideas are usually original too. Two years ago he told me he wanted to be a remote control for Halloween. I panicked because I knew I was never going to find a remote control costume and Tate, once his mind is made up, is hard to sway. I bought some black and white felt and spent a Saturday morning with my sewing machine and Tate had a remote control costume.

Tate is making sure his Dad
knows who is taller. 
This year my 6’3” son wants to be a skeleton. As we walk from house to house to gather the candy he will not eat, I will celebrate the progress he has made. I know eventually he will be “too old” chronologically to trick or treat, no matter his developmental age. But for at least one more year we are going trick or treating with all the other kids who love Halloween.  For a lot of kids it is all about the candy, but the only candy Tate will put in his mouth are m&ms and Hershey’s chocolate bars. So for Tate it is not about the candy. It’s about the adventure. And THAT is huge when you live with autism.

To appreciate the list you might need a little background and you have to understand that Tate can hold a grudge for years. I believe it was two years ago that we put off going to the pumpkin patch until late October and then the weather was bad so we bought our pumpkins at Wal-mart on a Sunday. Sundays are for going to church in Tate’s world and pumpkins should only come from pumpkin patches, and never be purchased on a Sunday.  

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