Tuesday, October 30, 2012

I met my friend, Lauren, for coffee on the morning of November 1st, and listened patiently as she lamented about the “poorly reared children” who visited her home the night prior, ringing the doorbell in search of Halloween candy. “They didn’t even say ‘thank you.’ Half of them just reached in to the bowl and took a handful of stuff, even after I said go ahead and take one piece. What is wrong with these kids? Who raised those kids?”

My answer? Me. I raised them.
It was just before my son’s fifth birthday. He was dressed in a bright red dragon costume of his sister’s choosing. She was a pink poodle. At first, neither child understood the purpose of Halloween, and it took some cajoling to get the kids to walk up the first set of steps and ring the neighbor’s doorbell. An elderly woman appeared, holding a trove of candy in a bowl with a giant moving claw. My daughter recoiled in horror. Henry grimaced, then walked past it…past the woman…through the front door…and plopped down on her sofa. He stared at the evening news on the TV. “Uhhh…he’s new at this,” I offered, as I raced toward him.

House number two was no better. Knowing he would bolt through the door, I kept a firm grip on his hand. This time, a youngish woman with a baby in her arms came to the door with a bowl of DOTS. “Take one.” Henry grabbed a fistful of boxes, and settled down on the porch steps, tearing open one box after another and pounding them down his gullet. Again, I apologized. Profusely.

At this point, Dennis was skeptical. “Maybe we should just call it quits?”
Midori began wailing. “Trick or treat! Trick or treat.” I nodded, and said, “A few more houses. He’ll get the idea. He just has to try a few times.”
And so the night went on. One well-intended homeowner after another demanded a “trick-or-treat” from our son in exchange for his candy. A bewildered Henry would scream angrily, and grab for the bowl. When advised to say “thank you,” he would simply stare off in another direction. After this scene repeated itself over and over yet again, Midori took it upon herself to tell everyone her brother was hearing impaired. “He’s stone deaf. Never said a word.”
Finally, I countered, “Midori, your brother is NOT deaf. He can hear.”
“I know, Mom.  But what am I gonna do? Explain the whole thing? I can’t be at EVERY door that long. It’s just easier to say he’s deaf. Henry, tell people you’re deaf, okay?”
Moments later, Henry tired of his costume on the stoop of an older couple just down the block from our home, and so he simply stripped naked much to the horror of several onlookers.
See, Halloween is different when you are different. Asking a child with autism to choose one piece of candy out of a giant bowl is simply overwhelming. What looks like swimming across a kiddie pool is, to him, as if he were asked to breaststroke the ocean.

Our daughter had better social manners, but she struggled with fine motor skills. For her, grabbing a single small piece of candy from a giant bowl was not merely difficult, it was impossible.  Trust me when I tell you that I tried to contain her fistfuls, but children are part ninja…and I had one hand on the escape artist waiting to take up residence on a stranger’s couch…
Henry couldn’t, at that time, speak much at all. The tit-for-tat, “say ‘trick or treat’ for this piece of candy” routine was an insurmountable obstacle for our son. All he knew was that someone was holding candy out to him, but refusing to actually give it over…and then, he’d communicate his frustration with a high pitched wail, or he’d lash out with an angry fist and a jerk of the knee. He couldn’t thank the person for proffering the candy when they finally relented.

He was smothered by the crowds, the sounds, the darkness, and the frightening images of Halloween. He was itchy in his costume, which exacerbated his sensory problems. He was confused, unsure what to do, and frustrated. But he wanted to do what other kids were doing, he wanted to go to school and tell his peers that he, too, had gone trick-or-treating. He was trying so hard, and so were we all.

I told Lauren the story. I explained it in the way that only a mother who has felt the sting of judgment -who has risked embarrassment and ugliness so as to give her child the opportunity to experience the same things that hundreds of other kids experience without question or challenge – can explain.
Sometimes, what seems like “bad behavior” is disability in disguise. So, as scores of children come to your door and ring your bell, find your extra dispensation of grace. Open that door without judgment. Reserve your thoughts of “good” or “bad” parenting, “proper” or “improper” conduct and, instead, see that children (like the rest of us) come in all conditions, with all sorts of stories and all manner of ability and disability.

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