Thursday, October 31, 2013

Halloween and kids with special needs: Let 'em celebrate THEIR way

This is an essay I wrote, Just Call Us Halloweenies, that originally appeared in Redbook's October 2010 issue. It's about Halloween, but mostly it's about acceptance and letting go of preconceptions you have about what it means to enjoy childhood. I had no idea that the essay would be controversial, but it inspired some people to chide me for not dressing the kids up and others to berate my parenting. Hope your kids celebrate the holiday in whatever way makes them happiest. Max is going as Lightning McQueen (duh!) and Sabrina will be a lovely skeleton with "blood" running through her veins. If your kids are dressing up, who are they going to be? If not, what fun plans do you have?

My son's first Halloween was scary, for both of us. At 10 months old, Max functioned at a four-month level. A stroke at birth had caused brain damage and serious delays; doctors weren't sure how disabled he would be. Still, I wanted him to have the fun-tastic rite of passage everyone enjoys as a kid—the thrill of dressing up, the glee of dumping out the night's haul. That October, I got Max a ridiculously cute velour pumpkin costume and took him to our town's parade. Hundreds of kids milled around, store owners doled out candy corn, a loudspeaker blasted "Monster Mash."

Max freaked out. His sensory issues were just beginning to surface, and the crowd and noise terrified him. I felt awful for him, and mournful. We left the other families in town at the party and went home.

I tried again next year (Max as a puppy) and the year after (Max as Thomas the Tank Engine). He wailed; I cried. By the time Max's fourth Halloween rolled around and he'd been diagnosed with cerebral palsy, I'd given up on the parade. My husband took our 2-year-old, Sabrina, while Max and I carved out our own celebration. He put on a fireman's hat, I swung him on our backyard swing, and then we downed double-fudge ice cream. It was his idea of a good time and, unexpectedly, mine too; Sabrina could represent our family amid the sugar-fueled swarms.

But, no. Last year, both kids refused to dress up, Sabrina joining Max in a show of sibling solidarity. At first I begged her to wear the Ariel getup ($39!!!) I'd bought. And then, I let go. We would do Halloween our way, in T-shirts and sweatpants. That would be our tradition, as quirky as our family itself.

And so off we went, trick-or-treating. "Who are you?" neighbors asked, perplexed by my costume-less children. "I'm Sabrina!" said Sabrina. "Ax!" said Max. Best costumes ever. 


  1. i'm with Max and Sabrina what's the point of dressing up :)

  2. It's my last year going trick-or-treating.(I'm 14) I'm being Glinda, and my sister is being Elphie. I think, that it's okay if little kids don't dress up, but when you're my age it's kind of disrespectful to not put effort into a costume- considering we're a bit old to be begging for candy anyways :). Happy Halloween Max and Sabrina!

    1. Love this comment! (And don't give up just yet on dressing up to go trick or daughter and a group of her friends all dressed up their Senior year of High School and went out trick or treating together and the people in town loved it!) :)

  3. I can relate to this post. I used to get upset when Kyle didn't enjoy the things I "thought" he should enjoy, like dressing up in costume. It doesn't bother me anymore, though, and some years I would dress him up and some years I haven't. I just posted on my blog this morning a quick "picture post" about Kyle's years of costumes!

  4. We normally just go to a few houses on our street and then come home and pass out candy. But this year my 5 yo son (with Down Syndrome) and I are going to a Halloween Party at his friends house while my 8 year old daughter goes trick or treating with our neighbors. She is a witch(so is her friend and her friends little sister is a cat) and my son is a fireman.

  5. I understand that it would be more fun and festive to see all kids dressed up but whats the fun in seeing a kid being upset because of a costume and then robbing them the fun of trick or treating if they dont dress up...I would pass on candy happily if kids turn up at my house without dressing up

  6. As a former child with a disability … now an adult … I applaud you for your approach. I'm not a parent myself, but it seems like there's a fine line you have to walk. You want a child with a disability to have the opportunity to do what other kids do. But you don't want to make them do something mainly to please you, or to make them appear outwardly more "normal". Somewhere between there's this gray area where a child may initially shy away from something because we ourselves absorb some of the prejudices and stigma from society. A little nudging and encouragement can expand our horizons a little and cause us to try things we end up enjoying. That sometimes did, and sometimes didn't happen with me. My parents never discouraged me from anything, nor did they pressure me into anything. But in retrospect, there are a few things I now regret not doing or trying that I might have done, if I'd had a little, gentle push at the time.

    All that said, it's such an individual call that NOBODY should berate you for your choices.

  7. Yes! People think I'm a pain because I go through a lot of trouble to choose gifts, activities, and even costumes that mean something to my son. He is blind and concept knowledge is a big deal. If he doesn't know who Lightning McQueen is why would he want that costume for Halloween?

    He understands what a dinosaur is so that's what he was. He happily belted out a few RAWRs and it made sense to him. That's a win to me!

  8. I was the Nyan Cat for Halloween because I love the Internet.

  9. I do understand the preconceptions of enjoying childhood that we've held close to our hearts may not be what is our reality. I've had to let go of a few of my own. I too like to see the kids dressed up. I feel that is their part of the trick or treating process. Yet, I haven't walked in your shoes. I guess for me, if my son or daughter didn't want to dress up, I'd keep them at home and tell them that in order to get candy, they needed to dress up. That's part of the deal. I didn't have to address this issue with my kids because they both loved Halloween and dressing up so it's a moot point for us. If kids quit dressing up but continued to trick or treat, I'd probably turn out my light quit handing out candy. Why doesn't the parent just buy their un-costumed kids a bunch of candy if they feel that candy is that important? Is it the trick or treating experience they want for their kids?

    You recently wrote a post on sports inclusion and someone throwing a basket and getting a lot of attention. But it is really false attention because it is set up. To me, trick or treating without a costume is an example of not wanting our kids with special needs to be treated differently--until we do want them to be treated differently for their various disabilities. But aren't we all guilty of this? I feel my thoughts are often contradictory much of the time. :-)

    I'm certainly not trying to be disrespectful. It sure sounds like Max and Sabrina decided to go back to dressing up and doing Halloween in the spirit that it was meant (in the U.S.). And each parent must decide what is right and what works in their family. Finally, I do try to be tolerant and accepting of the few children who do not come to my house in costume. There are no lectures since I am not privy to the decision behind the no costume decision. We always give candy. But if the majority of kids started coming without dressing up, I'd rethink my decision to participate (as stated above). Just like the child can decide not to wear a costume, each household has the right to decide whether Halloween is still worth the effort.


Thanks for sharing!

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