Autistic Students Practice Routine of Trick-or-Treating in Time for Halloween

Article

A school for autistic individuals has had its pupils practice trick-or-treating in preparation for Halloween.

For a child with autism, Halloween can be far more frightening than it can be for other children.

The scary masks and costumes are only the beginning—“trick-or-treating” is a routine that many autistic children may encounter with difficulty, especially since it involves a lot of interaction with strangers.

With this in mind, the Somerset Hills Learning Institute in Bedminster, New Jersey, has been taking a part of each academic school day for the past week to practice the routine of trick-or-treating in order to prepare their autistic students for this annual event.

The autistic trick-or-treaters come prepared for the rehearsal: they don their costumes—many of which have been picked out for months—and march single file up and down the halls of the private school with their teachers, trick-or-treating at certain doors of classrooms and administrative offices. On the opposite sides of the doors, teachers and school officials are ready with candy.

This rehearsal serves more than one purpose, however, as the interaction teaches the children certain social skills that will be useful throughout their lives.

Simulating trick-or-treating multiple times prior to the big night allows the autistic students to learn the routine, which involves making eye contact, choosing and receiving candy, replying to a compliment on their costume, and, naturally, repeating the phrase “trick or treat!” over and over again.

Parents in general are quite pleased with the program, as it decreases the children’s fear of the unknown associated with Halloween. "When they see these scary masks and costumes, they don’t know what’s going on," reported Leeann Bartushak of Branchburg, whose five-year old son Jake attends Somerset Hills.

Not all of the practicing involves the routine of trick-or-treating, though, as some autistic students face other major obstacles associated with the holiday.

Some students "are practicing going door-to-door and some are practicing standing next to their costume," said Tara Ferrigno, a school spokeswoman.

Somerset Hills is an affiliate of the Princeton Child Development Institute. The school caters to 28 autistic students from regions in central and northern Jersey; the teaching tactics employed are very methodical and include utilizing applied behavior analysis, according to executive director Kevin Brothers. The autistic students make daily progress by learning basic skills and practicing them repeatedly. Rewards are used to encourage positive behavior, but for each child, the reward varies.

For one autistic student, Jake, his reward for willingly dressing up and practicing trick-or-treating is a dance party to "Dynamite,” his favorite song. Another student is allowed to watch one minute of his favorite “Little Einstein” video. Hannah is given her own favorite candy, a Starburst, for her cooperation.

According to school officials, such positive reinforcement has yielded results.

Honey Bermeo, Hannah’s mother, reported that in the past her daughter would cry during trick-or-treating and refuse to leave her side. "After one or two houses we would end up backing everybody up, and we would go home," said Bermeo of Hackettstown. Now things have changed as Hannah has been practicing the routine at school. "It’s such a big contrast," she said.

Another success story is Anne Celeste Stentebjerg-Olesen, who was previously uncomfortable with the texture of her costumes. As a toddler, her parents dressed her in a fuzzy lion suit, much to her disdain. "Originally she’d have a major tantrum and try to yank it off," said her mother. Rehearsing the routine and costuming involved in the tradition of Halloween at Somerset Hills, however, has brought about "miraculous changes.” This year, five-year old Anne will be a ballerina. Her father stated that his daughter reached this decision quite happily over three months ago.

Happy Halloween!

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