Trick or Treat for Nonverbal Children
Original Post: October 2014. Updated: October 2015, October 2016, October 2018
I think a lot about how to help Nathaniel understand and engage with the world and how to help the world understand Nathaniel. In this light, Halloween has been troubling me.
How does a child who can not speak and does not eat participate in Halloween?
We could skip it. There are many Christian homeschool families who avoid the holiday all together. We did at one point in our child rearing. But I do not want to get in the habit of avoiding things that are difficult. God's grace is sufficient to push through hard situations toward new solutions. He meets my parenting struggles with gifts of creativity and possibility.
October 2013, Nathaniel's first Halloween, was a cold and rainy week night. After enjoying soup with friends, we came home. We skipped the door to door part of the evening. In 2014, we celebrated Halloween with Nathaniel's foster family and visited a few homes in their neighborhood. We exchanged all the candy Nathaniel collected for a toy. We enjoyed Halloween 2015 at Nathaniel's grandparent's home before venturing out to visit homes registered with the Teal Pumpkin Project. Nathaniel started eating during the Spring 2016 so that Halloween was a first that he could collect candy and eat a little of it. He’s a big fan of Halloween!
In the fall of 2014, Nathaniel enjoyed participating in a game with his speech therapist using laminated picture squares which represented nursery songs. He selected a square, handed it to his therapist, and she sang. Mary Had a Little Lamb. Old McDonald. Mr. Sun. He gave her the Mr. Sun square over and over. It was his favorite. At the time Nathaniel was using his iPad speaking app occasionally in specific settings, but we are still working with him to instigate communication and express himself. The purpose of the file folder song game was two-fold: Nathaniel had to "ask" for something and it provided another setting to learn that pictures represent things.
Halloween offers the same communication opportunities as the song game - instigating and requesting. After such great success with the song game, we created the cards below as a tool to help with that communication. In theory, having Nathaniel hand one to each person sounded ideal and we tried that in 2014. In practice, it did not work. We found that people did not expect to TAKE something from a child at their door and it often prompted longer than necessary conversations.
In preparation (for Halloween 2016), we practiced knocking on a door and using his talker to say "Trick or Treat." We talked with Nathaniel about what the cards said and on Halloween night we had them available as a quick way to explain why Nathaniel's communication is different than other children if necessary.
I experienced Halloween as a child in northern Ohio. St Louis has some odd Halloween customs. Sometimes adults need to hear the words “trick or treat” from each child before they will give out candy. Even more often, the adults ask for a joke! Yep, St. Louis children have to tell jokes to get candy on Halloween. We really want keep the focus of adult conversation on the fun and the children, rather than explaining Nathaniel's disability out loud over and over, so Daddy has a joke ready when someone asks for it, and we share the card. We are learning each year ways to help Nathaniel understand the world and the world to understand all the children like Nathaniel.
New to our Halloween tradition in 2015 was to paint and decorate teal pumpkins. A few friends displayed a special Nathaniel created teal pumpkin and have pledged to participate in the Teal Pumpkin Project by offering non-food items to trick-or-treaters. We would encourage everyone to have a few non-candy options.
Glow sticks, bracelets, or necklaces
Pencils, pens, crayons or markers
Halloween erasers or pencil toppers
Whistles, kazoos, or noisemakers
Finger puppets or novelty toys
The Teal Pumpkin Project is sponsored by Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE). Please visit their website for more information and to register your home as one offering non-food treats this Halloween. Registering your home on the FARE website allows parents the opportunity to select neighborhoods and home appropriate for their child's needs this Halloween.