The Difference Between Disability and Rudeness, on a Halloween in NZ (Part One).

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

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8 Responses to The Difference Between Disability and Rudeness, on a Halloween in NZ (Part One).

  1. “You want to dress up as what?” *fetches rooster costume*!

    So far for me here in London it’s been uneventful. The cat made me fall asleep this afternoon then I was woken up by a ring at the door around 6pm, which I couldn’t answer in my condition.

    Looking forward to part two 🙂 x

  2. I agree with your conclusion! Not only is it the parents job to teach manners etc, but how likely is it that we, as strangers, are going to make much of a difference by judging the etiquette of the kids in the first place? Many of us have been taught manners and kindness at home only to run around town acting ‘cool’ and even rude when hanging out with friends as pre-teens and teens. Well some of us have…. well, I have! And what generally made me rethink my actions was kindness from strangers. By being stripped of my automatic–and rather cheeky!–knee jerk reaction to fight for my rights (what rights, I have no idea. But as a kid I was pretty sure grown-ups were stripping me of them!) I couldn’t help but see my own rudeness through their eyes. Admittedly, I was most often a very sweet kid, but around certain friends I changed a little. This is all part of growing-up.

    As you pointed out, being surrounded by autism has taught us that sometimes what looks like rude, isn’t. So now I just figure if I’m friendly to people, regardless, I just may disarm the rude ones enough to make them think. And though that’s unlikely, what is certain is that it will be more fun for me! And my kids will be surrounded by my happy, what a fun time, non-judgmental attitude!

    Which, by the way, I’ve learned to hold onto even when telling teenagers showing up at 10 PM that it was too late and they should go home. Sometimes being non-judgmental and kind can mean saying no. And we’ve yet to have our home toilet papered! *Knock on wood!

    I can’t wait for part 2!! I’m so interested to hear how you and your son enjoyed your first Halloween!!

    • Thank you Tsara, and an insightful and entertaining comment as ever. Anyone would think you had a guru of acceptance and thinking-differently as your mother :p (Where-ever it came from – whether from inside you or from an awesome mum, or both – you’ve become such a lovely human being, and your kids are very lucky 🙂 )

  3. Sunshine says:

    Oh, man, I’m too American for this blog entry, lol. I mean that in a very good natured way, I am just so shocked that it IS completely different. Generally, Halloween is a time for kinda shunning etiquette rules… y’all have actual instructions? Actual rules? Where are you reading these rules?? I’m not mocking, I find it absolutely fascinating. Where I come from, if you ring on a doorbell on Halloween, anywhere from 5pm-midnight, you can grab you a big ole handful of candy out of a bowl. In fact, in the Bible Belt, so many children are doing alternative activities on Halloween night, late coming teens out of costumes are often rewarded with a full bowl of all the leftover candy. We’re like, “Oh, thank goodness! Some plain clothed teenagers! Here you go!” Interesting!

    • Actually, I researched a bunch of sites to get my head around Halloween rules, and some of those sites were American! From what I understand though, America is a hugely diverse country, and what is acceptable and encouraged and celebrated in one State, can be the devil’s work in the next. I don’t think of the USA as a rude country, or an ignorant country, or whatever the haters (or lovers) go with; I just think of it as hugely diverse, and that’s pretty awesome in itself really.

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