Halloween is the time of year when kids dress up and go door to door trading in a trick for a treat. But for children with disabilities or those with Autism Spectrum Disorder, this time of year can be difficult, even stressful.
Experts say there are many things families can do to make their home more accessible and Halloween more inclusive to all children.
Global News spoke to Dr. Melanie Penner, a clinician investigator and developmental pediatrician at Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital in Toronto.
Penner says for those children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), giving some options to the child when they approach your home is a good way to ensure the child can still partake in getting a treat, without feeling anxious.
“Kids with ASD sometimes have really strong reactions to parts of the sensory environment. So bright lights, loud noises might be particularly frightening for them,” Penner said.
“So you might want to consider if you want to have those things with your house, maybe you have a spooky path for kids to go up to your house, but maybe you also have a safe path where kids don’t have to experience those things.
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“The other thing is that kids with ASD might take longer to respond verbally, or might not respond verbally at all. So saying things like ‘trick or treat’ might be a bit more challenging for them, so it’s okay to give them a little bit more time or to be understanding if you don’t get that verbal response that you’re expecting.”
Penner also encourages parents who have children with ASD to ease them into the Halloween experience at the child’s pace.
“So what I usually tell parents is if you start out with some familiar houses with some familiar people that they know and you know you can try those houses as sort of a test to see, you know, how the trick or treating experience goes, and then from there if they’re comfortable you can try going to more unfamiliar houses,” Penner said.
“The other option would be to stay at the home with the parents giving them candy so that they can also experience Halloween in that way.
“It’s really important for kids with autism and kids with other types of disabilities to have these opportunities to successfully participate in fun things like Halloween. So it is really important to foster an environment that helps them to do that. And the other benefit of that is that by creating that inclusive environment, it gives the rest of us the opportunity to meet more kids with disabilities to meet more kids with autism, and that achieves a broader goal of helping us break down some of the stigma associated with those conditions.”
Liam Marriage is seven years old and he loves Halloween. He lives in Toronto with his mother, father, and three-year-old brother.
Liam made his own Halloween costume this year. It’s one that is tailored to him perfectly – a large black spider, built around his walker.
Liam has Arthrogryposis Multiplex Congenita, or otherwise known as Arthrogryposis. It’s a rare condition that causes stiffness in the joints and weakness in the muscles. So for Liam, walking can prove to be difficult.
He has been working with specialists at Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital for the past three years, and his progress has been incredible. But accessibility will also be an issue for Liam.
His father, Allan Marriage also works at Holland Bloorview, and together along with Liam’s mother they are working to educate the public on the importance of fostering an inclusive Halloween for all children.
“If a child has a disability, coming out of their homes and down the driveway or down the steps. One of Liam’s biggest challenges is getting up steps and down steps and so one of the things we do is we go to his grandparents’ neighbourhood because there are less steps than in some of the modern homes,” Marriage said.
Other things you can do to make your home more accessible include:
- Move your treat bowl and pumpkin down to the sidewalk. Stairs present challenges for kids with disabilities who use wheelchairs to get around. If there are stairs between you and the children, consider coming down or setting up at the bottom of the stairs. This will also help eliminate tripping hazards and physical barriers.
- When addressing trick-or-treaters, make sure they can see your face and mouth as you speak. This can help children who struggle with speech and hearing issues.
- Being patient will allow all children to move at the pace they need to and have fun. It may take some children an extra minute or two to reach out to get their treat, or say thank you. They may need you to put the treat in their container for them.
- For some kids, flashing lights and startling scares can be a trigger for a seizure. Consider creative decorations and spooky music that can be detected from a distance.
- Be prepared to hand out non-candy options as some kids have allergies or may not consume food orally. Consider filling up your treat basket with stickers, coupons, and small toys as well.
- Make sure the location where you hand out treats is well-lit. This helps trick-or-treaters who have vision challenges.