Yesterday my son and I both experienced something for the first time: Trick-or-treating on Halloween. Halloween is relatively new to my country, and is still very widely attacked here as an unwanted Americanism which is all about rude kids wanting free candy. For many it is simply seen as a way for various high-profile companies to make some extra money, on something which has no meaningful history (compare Christmas, which at least has meaning for many, despite the commercialisation).
But those are adults issues and views, none of them matter to a seven-year old who sees children knocking on our door each year, dressed up in costumes, getting free lollies from us, before the children run off laughing to the next house. So there’s nothing unexpected in my son asking to join in this year. I like that there was something new that he wanted to try, and saw the opportunities in the experience to teach and extend his skills and confidence, so neither should there be anything unexpected in the fact that I agreed to him giving it a go.
Leading up to the day we hit a hurdle: The only thing my son wanted to dress up as was a clock (clocks being one of his central obsessions), and it’s not a readily available costume, nor one I had the time or resources (or skill) to create. As the day neared both I and he became less enamoured with the idea of Halloween; he decided he didn’t like scary things, and I was concerned about taking a child around without a costume, asking for treats that I didn’t even want him to eat.
Then something shared on Facebook changed my mind and lead to our first night trick-or-treating:
It reminded me that there are very many things my son has had trouble doing and has been excluded from, just because of fears and expectations (both mine and his), and that I have prided myself on working to find ways around those fears and expectations. If a friend on Facebook (who doesn’t have an autistic child and who is not autistic) can share this message of acceptance and open-mindedness, then the least I could do was act with the hope and expectation that maybe people could overlook my son’s differences and welcome him just like all the other less-deserving ratbags in our neighbourhood; ratbags who don’t face these issues but present the very face of rudeness that the image is trying to rewrite in people’s minds. Which brings me to this point:
There are rude children on Halloween, we see them every year lately. They don’t bother dressing up in costumes, they don’t say thank you, they knock on doors where people show no interest in Halloween in a country where Halloween is still mostly frowned upon. And they do it in droves (we’re not just talking a few of the kids, this is more like a majority of the kids who knock on our door). So how do you tell the difference between these rude children, and the disabled ones who face verbal and physical challenges that can come off as rudeness, and how do you take those differences into account when teaching the “rules” of Halloween?
Because I looked up the Halloween rules, and what I kept coming upon time after time, was a list of exclusions for disabled children: They must say thank you, they mustn’t using grabbing motions at the candy, they must wear a costume “if they’re not wearing costumes, don’t give them candy.” All of which means that children facing sensory and motor and communication issues are likely to be seen as rude and unwanted on a day which is meant to be fun for all kids.
Then I figured out what the problem was, and why the message about rudeness on Halloween is all garbled and confused: These instructions about rules and rudeness should only be directed at the parents preparing the children for Halloween; it is – as ever – their responsibility to guide and inform their own children in matters of manners and behaviour. By the time that child comes knocking on your door, if they’re not in a costume and forget their words and say or do the wrong things according to the rules, the person handing out the candy should be giving the benefit of the doubt, and blaming the parents (if they must blame someone) instead of punishing the child standing on their doorstep. When you open your door, you have no idea of the history behind the child in front of you; assume the best and help them enjoy their night instead of ticking off a list of rules in your head.
Real and concerning rudeness in this context isn’t hard to spot; children who are mean or actively rude in their words and actions (as opposed to those who don’t follow perfectly correct words and behaviours) are of a very different sort than those who are struggling with disabilities. And quite frankly, even if a child was struggling with disabilities, there is always a line drawn at meanness or intentional rudeness, so the distinction between rudeness and disability melts away at that point anyway.
These same concerns are mirrored in matters of general public behaviour and discipline, and the way the public reacts when they see a parent struggling with a difficult child, and chip in their sarcastic comments and sneers of disapproval: You don’t know the child, you don’t know their history. It is the parent’s responsibility to teach that child manners and good behaviour, it is not your role to pass judgment on absolute strangers and hold them accountable for falling short of your standards. The difference between an abusive or neglectful parent, and one who is struggling with a disabled child (even when it is an invisible disability like autism), is the same sort of difference as between an accidentally and intentionally rude child at your door on Halloween: Withhold the judgment, condemnation and punishment when you don’t know the child and family’s history; save your scorn for the unambiguous cases of rude ratbags.
So for all this musing, what happened with my own family and son on Halloween? That will be in Part Two…