Allergies and Autism and Sensory Overload, Oh My! How to Make Halloween Inclusive

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The Grim Reaper takes a break to ensure his safety while the ill-prepared firefighter keeps his distance just in case

Though Halloween parties have turned into “Harvest Parties” at school, the anticipation and sentiment of Halloween is still timeless. As a parent I find myself still caught up in Halloween and creating spooky Pinterest fails and contemplating what candy I can pilfer from my child’s treat bag without him noticing. Some costumes are so realistically scary that I am not certain that my red meat consumption hasn’t finally caught up with me and am opening my door to the actual Grim Reaper himself. There is a revolving door of Elsas and Ninja Turtles who could just very likely just be the same child over and over again capitalizing on those homes who everyone knows passes out full sized candy bars.

A couple of years ago I was coordinating a party for my child’s 4th grade classroom. 20% of that classroom had food allergies. I gently reminded parents that the goal was for all our children to be included, be safe and have fun. I was perplexed when one parent refused to change the cookie decorating idea she had. “Kids who can’t make or eat them can at least enjoy them for how cute they are”. In what I believed was a teachable moment I reminded her that it still excluded them and also created a potentially dangerous situation. This parent became so incensed that she quit the committee. While I still get as excited about Halloween as the next guy, I was horrified as one of those children was mine….and another parent was willing to not only exclude him, but risk his safety because she was so excited about her adorable witch hat cookie project.
Halloween has become the holiday where those children with differences become the most exposed and have the potential to be the most left out. The numbers of children with food allergies and other differences have risen sharply since I was a child. As a parent with kids with food issues and also autism, it took me many years to figure out ways how to adapt the most super-fun holiday so it was still fun. Turns out, there are lots of ways to do this both as parents and as community members.

Here are some of the top ideas for the “BIG 3” to make Halloween still the coolest holiday ever
1. FOOD ALLERGIES:

a. PARENTS: Sort out the candy together so you can help teach him what is ok to eat. Have the “SWITCH WITCH” visit later that night and exchange that bag of candy full of offending allergens with a present. Your child will be thrilled to have the best of both worlds. And hey, there is no rule that says the switch witch can’t give you that bag to stash away and secretly eat after the kids are asleep.
b. SUPPORTERS: The Teal Pumpkin project is a new idea sweeping through social media. If you paint a pumpkin teal and have it on your front porch it will alert parents of kids with food allergies that you have an allergen alternative available. Also, for class parties, ASK about allergens—be sure to ask about brand specifics and preparation—that can all play a role in safety. Please remember what it would be like to be 8 years old where everyone gets to eat really cool looking cupcakes except for you. If that were easy to do, none of us would ever be on a diet. The willpower of a child with a food allergy is like nothing most of us can ever understand.

2. SENSORY DIFFERENCES:

a. PARENTS: Respect your child’s sensory difference. If noise is an issue, avoid those homes that go all out for Halloween….your child might be in for a “jump scare” that will end his evening of fun. Costumes are not always made out of the finest of materials.have him choose his own and try a number of options until one feels right. Contact your local support groups for special needs—there may be sensitive Trunk or Treat nights available which may suit your child much better.
b. SUPPORTERS: Teachers and room parents—if you have children with special needs in your class, tone down the scary a bit. Spooky music should not be on full blast and the mulling around of 25 kids in costume might be disorienting. Have a quiet space outside of the classroom where the child knows he can go to escape if overwhelmed. And for pete’s sake NO BALLOON POPPING ACTIVITIES OR STROBE LIGHTS!

3. AUTISM:

a. PARENTS: Create visuals to help your child understand what to expect at school parties or trick or treat. Try on the costume ahead of time. If your child does not want to participate in Halloween festivities, don’t force them. Throw a small party at your house with old school fun and invite 2 or 3 children he knows for trick or treating, stick to familiar neighbors homes buddy up with a child who can model. Sometimes “just a hat” IS a costume with enough thinking on the fly. Freddie Krueger
Freddy Krueger as a child…before all the drama. He just wanted to feed everyone cereal and soup….

b. SUPPORTERS: If a child does not say “trick or treat” or “ thank-you” he may not be being rude. He may not be able to speak or fully understand what is expected of him. Same goes for a child who appears too large or too old for trick or treating. If a child grabs a handful of candy or doesn’t seem to know what to do when you hold the bowl out, give them a prompt of what to do or physically help them. Their fine motor skills may be impaired and the ability to just pick one or two candies from a dish might be difficult. Still compliment an aspect of their costume even if it seems incomplete. This is still their Halloween too!

 Those of us who try to make our kids feel included no matter what can get very good at scooping up the world around, tying it in a different bow and re-presenting it to our kids and Halloween is no different.  With the help of our community, little tweaks can make all the difference between Halloween being fun or being truly scary.

The Days Its About Me: The Dirty Secret of Taking a Break

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Every few years, I go on a life sabbatical. Life sabbaticals work differently than educational sabbaticals mostly because they are not real. The notion that there are people who receive paid time to disappear somewhere to have a temporary life that doubles as a say-no-more way to avoid other social responsibility is magical. “No, no, I won’t be here to chair that research project, I will be away on sabbatical.”  versus  “Well…you’ll just have to have that IEP meeting for my kid without me, I’ll be on life sabbatical. Have your people call my people” doesn’t quite have the same heady ring to it and might necessitate a call to a mental health professional.  Unlike our neurotypical cohorts, many of us special needs parents are preparing for a forever life. Though we feverishly plan for it, there might not be a high school graduation send off party unless of course that party is sending off what few resource and assistance waivers our children got before they age out of the system. Diapers and tantrums are likely going to get larger and with the passage of time I am already finding myself getting smaller, tired and more complacent in the frenetic searching, learning and advocating as certain realities set in. This is troubling.  Apathy is the ugly stepsister of passion. While passion will gladly cut off a chunk of heel to make her foot fit into that glass slipper in hopes of a prince, apathy will do so because its easier to make do than to shop for something to wear to the ball.

Endless details and inconveniences are just part of daily life in parenting regardless of circumstance. Its like the service charge for the privilege of parenthood and an occasional break from that is necessary for even the strongest of mommy constitutions. However, there are those of us who are so steeped in the present at all times where there are rarely idle moments not spent trouble shooting; even in the middle of night as we play musical beds and double-check doors. So I am mindful in the moment and I am mindful in that moment contemplated 30 years from now. The whispers of all the things that will come in between need to shut the hell up because I simply have no room at the inn left to consider those things. As caregivers we are told to take care of ourselves, take time off, do what we love. This seems like cheap advice and when heeded I am reminded that ultimately not much is different on my return. The airline may have lost my tagged luggage of anxiety  while I was away, but it is surely taking a circular ride on the carousel at gate 6 when I arrive home. Time away takes me to places from my past. A time when existential angst was poetic, selfishness was better defined as a deep level of internal awareness and laziness was a sleep credit I could one day consider cashing in. The dichotomy for the surrendered love for your child and also wondering what it would be like if your heart didn’t bleed through your blouse every day is a quiet and unreasonable Sophie’s Choice. Sometimes its just easier not to be a tourist in your alternate universe.

In my life sabbatical, I am lucky to be able to spend a few days away from my forever life with soul companions from my past who live in sleepy mountain towns in New England. Their lives are so vastly removed and different from mine yet anchor me to a world where I once lived. Lingering, casual vegan meals out where my fork is already unwrapped and folded into a crimson origami pocket on the table. Conversations are still tangential but are about politics, performance art, and anecdotes of escapades in places like Nice and Machu Picchu. I meet new people—interesting people who talk about ideas and experience rather than people or events. Though these conversations have evolved over the years and now include points about how difficult camping at high altitudes can be with stiff morning joints and schlepping a c-pap machine I am transported into a life of things that were once very important to me. Supportive friendships not sullied in the day-to-day. I can have amnesia and even forget that words such as “occupational therapist’ and ‘trash day’ and ‘bus bully’ ever slowly seeped into my repertoire of significant and meaningful topics of interest.

While recently on one of these life sabbaticals, serendipity appeared in a cameo.  In an unexpected and out of my control change in travel plans, I had the opportunity to attend a reading of a famous contemporary writer with cult-like status. His prolific works speak to anyone who has ever had a family or even just been alive despite the level of quirk and shock and neurosis woven through his stories. There is a distended familiarity in his writing and when he lends his voice to the story telling it feels like you were reading the original works in the wrong dialect of a foreign language you learned in high school. That epiphany of disappointment of what was missed in the original reading is quickly tempered by excitement to re-read in the voice and inflection intended.  Book signings are often part of these events and this writer is certain to ask each fan a question and attempt to tailor a sentiment attached to how he feels about them in the moment. And he can be honest. And brutal. And weird. And sometimes all. But regardless of what is written, its enough to brandish your signed copy around to show everyone how he thinks you smell like coins. He is a story-teller and I believe he likes to stoke fires and create the story to be told even when he isn’t directly the voice.

While he briefly engaged my theatre dates for the evening, I already had a question posited regarding his physical writing process. Partly because I am struggling with an issue in this area and partly because I thought if I asked him something preemptively I could kill our allotted time without ruining my self-esteem. “You wrote for such a long time pre-PC. Was it difficult to make the transition from handwriting your ideas to typing them out? “ He answered and asked why I was asking. I guess I should have realized that was possible as a visitor in my sabbatical of the impossible. “I used to write a long time ago. And then I didn’t. And now I am trying again but now there are computers and expectations. And its hard”. I started reaching for my book  he had not yet finished signing, but he continued. “What do you write?” Oh crap. I looked at my anchor friend who was smiling at me and nodding and guessing he must not have seen the poor young woman ahead of us get eviscerated over her cheap perfume. “Its just a blog”. He reached back to put something on the floor behind him and continued “what do you write about?”. He still wasn’t done signing my book otherwise I would have grabbed and ran…..the door was still ajar. “My kids. There are…disabilities”. “what kind of disabilities?” he asks without pause (door squeaks open a bit more). I run down a quick and dirty list. He then paused and thoughtfully balanced the sharpie between his thumb and index finger while resting his chin in the palm of his hand.  “Autism, yeah. My (distant relative) has (another relative) with autism. I fucking hate him. I HATE that kid so much, urgh”.

And there it was. Door now wide open. Mouths of theatre dates wide open. Hole in my heart wide open.

I ruffled.  “What is it you hate about him so much?”
“He doesn’t play with toys. They buy him toys but he doesn’t play them. He makes a mess of everything, destroys everything. Their whole world revolves around him and its ruined their life. I fucking hate him.”
In that moment I tried to decide if he was:
A).  a creative genius and there is nothing like making people uncomfortable or angry to get to hear some real truths.
B).  a complete asshole amusing himself and disguised as a creative genius and gets people to talk about him no matter what
C). Has absolutely no filter and has potentially has autism himself. Which would make sense if you have ever read any of his stories. This one is familiar to me. And also likely the thing he purportedly hates about said distant relative.

Regardless, I had to respond. “Well, I don’t hate my child, but  there are times I also hate autism. Sometimes it feels like it is ruining my life. I want to be done still getting poop under my nails but my 10-year-old is in diapers…. I guess I see it this way. No matter how hard so many days can be there is one thing that I am sure. It must be way, way harder for him, harder than it can ever be for me . And that makes me sad for sometimes feeling the way I do”.

We stared at each other for a time that was a few seconds longer than comfortable. “ I don’t think I would have thought of that perspective” he said. And he then finished signing my book. As he handed it to me and I turned to leave he said “Wait. Whats the name of your blog?”
After I got over the “I’m really angry and I don’t care if this is a schtick for ideas or even if he has autism himself”  and the “Maybe famous writer will read my blog and I will change more of his perspective” and the “THIS FAMOUS WRITER MIGHT READ MY BLOG!” HE’S GOING TO HATE IT!” (#humblebrag)  I spat out Running Through Water.
“I like that. It really captures what that’s like doesn’t it?” he said as I wondered if I just made him more uncomfortable than he made me.  “Yes” I told him “both on the good days and the bad ones. Sometimes you are exhausted and get nowhere …..and sometimes it makes you weightless.”

I peeked at my book where he had put two fish stickers over the writing errors he had made to both cover up his mistake and also call great attention to the fact he made them in the first place. “You make me want to live again” he wrote. Frankly I don’t even know what it means, but my story is right here Mr. Writer and you got me to tell it.  My writing is far less than anything I would ever want it to be, but it lay dormant for 25 years. My muse comes in the form of a cherub faced innocent who makes my soul light brighter than I could ever imagine.  He doesn’t ever get a life sabbatical.  Life sabbatical is a sham.  I love my children  but I hate my fears for them. Time away makes me miss my old life but it also makes me know if not for my experiences now I would not know that there was something to miss.  And I suppose its ok to allow those ideas to coexist as past and present collide and am reminded of poetry from my old life that I just didn’t believe: “When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.  When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.” (Khalil Gibran)
Every day is an opportunity to live again with new perspectives our old selves could not have imagined.