PITTSBURGH – When Katelyn Collins discovered a Harry Potter costume in August, she imagined how perfect a bolt of lightning would look peeking out from under her 7-year-old son’s Harry-like dark brown hair on Halloween night.
But the mental snapshot quickly faded as she examined the costume for properties far more important than looks.
She realized that it was little more than a cloak and scarf with which to wear his normal clothes underneath. There were no zippers or buttons. It wasn’t too difficult. The material wasn’t scratchy.
Collins, 38, of Cranberry, thinks about such things because her son Knox has autism. He has difficulty pretending to dress up and finds most of the costumes overwhelmingly uncomfortable.
“I think we think, ‘Oh, it’s so much fun putting on costumes,’ but he’s always questioned my perception of it,” said Collins, an education and behavioral consultant. “He says, ‘I’m Knox. I don’t know why you want me to be a dog. ‘”
Knox is among 1 in 54 American children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder and 1 in 6 American children ages 3-17 who are diagnosed with developmental disorder.
And many of these children, perhaps with assistance, will ring the doorbell on Halloween night.
For Erin Troup, owner and therapist at the Sprout Center for Emotional Growth and Development, an outpatient and early childhood counseling group in Brentwood, Halloween is a good reminder to “put disability first” when a child’s behavior appears unusual.
“It’s different from anything,” Troup said of Halloween night. “It’s scary. It’s scary. We protect kids from this stuff at all other times of the year, and then it’s right there in someone’s front yard.
“There is enough going on for a typical child to break down, but a child with challenges, there is a lot to consider.”
Almost every facet of trick or treating can be an opportunity to stumble upon children who are less able to “go with the flow”.
Selecting just one piece of candy from a mixed bowl can challenge children’s fine motor skills, and making this decision quickly while the children wait for their chance can panic in those who have difficulty with motor planning. Saying “trick or treating” and “thank you” may not be easy for children with communication disorders or those who are anxious or distracted by the stimulation of Halloween night.
And after 19 months of varying social distancing for COVID-19, some of the littlest trick-or-treaters are still catching up on average language and social levels.
“Research on language and cognitive delays in children who have not had interactions with other children is coming,” Troup said. “There are children who were born during or shortly before the pandemic and who are treated trick or treating for the first time. They just don’t know how to do it. “
But sometimes too much experience is the problem.
Cheryl Dennis’ 19-year-old son, Spencer, is six feet tall and loves trick or treating.
“Most people give him candy but can’t resist saying things like, ‘Aren’t you a little old for trick or treating?’ “Said Dennis, 47, from Morningside. “I can tell he feels bad, but he keeps wanting to do it. He looks neurotypical, so people expect him to be and say things that can really hurt his feelings. “
Spencer suffers from what is known as an alternating hemiplegia of childhood, which causes recurrent episodes of transient paralysis and is accompanied by cognitive problems, intellectual retardation, and developmental delay. In Dennis’s words: “He’s like an 11-year-old in the body of a man” who doesn’t understand that Halloween is usually reserved for young children.
According to Dr. Victoria Winkeller, a UPMC Psychiatrist Children’s Hospital, is key in preparing for Halloween or any other challenging situation.
Reading Halloween themed books, sharing pictures of decorated courtyards and people in disguise, trying on costumes, and role-playing with the social and physical aspects of trick or treating can help.
“Prepare something in advance that is appropriate for your child because you know best,” she said. “It’s a change in routine. There are new sounds and new lights, people in costumes. It can be really overwhelming for many reasons. “
That’s why Collins bought the Harry Potter costume in early September.
At first she only showed it to Knox because he didn’t feel like putting it on. At the beginning of October he still just wanted to look at it. But about a week later, his parents were making a Harry Potter movie and bringing out the costume. His father Patrick just put it on out of nonsense, which convinced Knox to do the same.
“If I take these steps in advance, hopefully Halloween will come when we’re ready to do trick or treat, then it’s not, ‘Oh my god, this is a crisis,’ everyone is sweating and we are both crying,” said Collins . “It desensitizes him to the idea of the costume. We’re working on getting him to draw the scar on our foreheads. “
Many neighbors near Cheryl Dennis’ Morningside home know Spencer, which allows him to play primarily among those who understand his differences.
Winkeller supports this strategy, but knows that this is not always possible. Instead, some families make signs or pins in their practice that indicate the child’s special needs. This method allows strangers to instantly tailor their answers to the child, but it requires convenience in sharing personal information.
For those less inclined, she recommends that families create a “friendly, easy moment” by walking as a group, perhaps all dressed up or in matching shirts, and saying something like, “We love this one Holiday just so much and we want to enjoy it together. Our child is someone who has some additional challenges and wants to enjoy it. “
Troup recommends offering a choice during the trick or treating, such as:
Despite nearly three months of preparation, Knox’s parents estimate he will visit about 10 houses before saying he’s done, as he has done for several years. And as they leave, the Collinses check in with their son to make sure he still has a good time, which is another pro tip from Troup.
“You may think of your age and think you’re walking down a number of streets or houses, but your child might be so overwhelmed to see everything that’s going on, it might melt earlier than you think, especially if there are many give children, ”she said.
Troup sometimes suggests a “no now” trick or treating approach to more controlled activities like a home scavenger hunt or having the child hand out candy instead of collecting it.
This may sound like a simpler approach to kids like Knox, but as always, caregivers know best.
It took Knox over a month to familiarize himself with his costume before he buckled on the cloak and wrapped the crimson and gold scarf around his neck. But when he did, he immediately grabbed his wand and began reciting film dialogues in his best British accent.
“I know he’ll have a great time once I get him out of the way,” said Collins.
While professionals help prepare their disabled customers for special events like Halloween, community members can do their part to ease expectations.
“We shouldn’t have any preconceived ideas about what Halloween should or shouldn’t be, other than a safe place for neighbors to come together, say hello to each other, and welcome kids to have some fun,” said Winkeller. “I want to remind people to be kind and warm, get rid of expectations, and have opportunities for everyone to enjoy the night.”
For families with children with special needs it is also successful to avoid expectations of Halloween.
After Knox calms down with his Harry Potter costume, he seems to be looking forward to trick or treating. But if he changes his mind, Collins says that’s fine.
“It’s not the end of the world if your child doesn’t dress up for Halloween,” she said. “When you have a child who doesn’t vacation like everyone else does, it takes some thought and planning. And it’s good for the whole world to think about it too. “
Katelyn Collins watches as son Knox, 7, tries on his Harry Potter Halloween costume at the family home in Cranberry, Pennsylvania on October 13, 2021.
While trying on his Harry Potter Halloween costume, Knox Collins, 7, gets a kiss from dad Patrick on October 13, 2021 at the family home in Cranberry, Pennsylvania. Mother Katelyn is on the right.