Tips to make Halloween a treat for kids with special needs

Abby Mackey
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (TNS)
Katelyn Collins watches as son Knox, 7, tries on his Harry Potter Halloween costume at the family’s Cranberry, Pennsylvania home on Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021. (Steve Mellon/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/TNS)

PITTSBURGH — When Katelyn Collins spotted a Harry Potter costume in August, she envisioned how perfect a lightning bolt would look peeking out from beneath her 7-year-old son’s Harry-like dark brown hair on Halloween night.

But the mental snapshot faded quickly as she inspected the costume for far more important qualities than looks.

She realized it wasn’t much more than a cape and a scarf, which would allow him to wear his regular clothes underneath. There were no zippers or buttons. It wasn’t too heavy. The material wasn’t scratchy.

Collins, 38, of Cranberry, Butler County, considers such things because her son, Knox, has autism. He struggles with pretend <FZ,1,0,20>play, like dressing up, and finds most costumes overwhelmingly uncomfortable.

“I think we think, ‘Oh, this is so fun, to put costumes on,’ but he’s always challenged my perception of that,” Collins, an educational and behavioral consultant, said. “He’s like, ‘I’m Knox. I don’t know why you’d want me to be a dog.’”

Knox is counted among the 1 in 54 American children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder and the 1 in 6 American children, ages 3-17 years old, diagnosed with a developmental disability.

And many of those kids, maybe with assistance, will be ringing doorbells on Halloween night.

What to expect: To Erin Troup, owner and therapist at Sprout Center for Emotional Growth and Development, an outpatient and early childhood consultation group in Brentwood, Halloween serves as a good reminder to “keep disability at the front” when a child’s behavior seems uncommon.

“It’s unlike anything else,” Troup said of Halloween night. “It’s spooky. It’s creepy. We shelter kids from that stuff all other times of the year, and then it’s right there in someone’s front yard.

“There’s enough going on there that a typical kid will melt down, but a child with challenges, it’s a lot to think about.”

Almost every facet of trick-or-treating can be a chance to stumble for kids who are less able to “go with the flow.”

Choosing just one piece of candy from a mixed bowl can challenge kids’ fine motor skills, and making that decision quickly, while waiting kids clamor for their chance, can cause panic in those who struggle with motor planning. Saying “trick or treat” and “thank you” might not come easily to kids with communication disorders or those who are anxious or distracted by the stimulation of Halloween night.

And after 19 months of varying levels of social distancing for COVID-19, some of the smallest trick-or-treaters are still catching up to average levels of language and social proficiency.

“The research is just coming through about language and cognitive delays in children who haven’t had interactions with other children,” Troup said. “There are kids who were born during, or right before, the pandemic who will be trick-or-treating for the first time. They just don’t know how to do this.”