October is often when a congregation will host a fall festival or trunk or treat. This event is a great way to engage the larger community and offer a time of fun and fellowship for the congregation. As a pastor, I always look forward to these times as they build connections, provide an opportunity for fun, and allow people to express themselves in creative ways.
As a father of an autistic child, these events can be an overwhelming and stressful experience. This is because of the number of realities (large groups of people, loud noises, enhanced sensory outputs) that can be challenging for an autistic child or a child with special needs to enjoy the event. That does not mean families with special needs children should not participate. Quite the contrary, I cannot wait to see my sons dress up as Super Mario and the Count from Sesame Street and to attend our trunk or treat. It does mean that churches can use the time leading up to their fall event to consider how to include children with special needs.
What follows are some things to do and not do to help your church have a great event that includes children with special needs.
Do consider that not all children have the same skills, especially with the fine motor skills needed to grab candy from a bucket. Children with autism or other special needs can experience delays or issues with fine motor skills. That child may understand that you want them to grab one piece of candy, but they may not have the skills to do that. Understanding that a child may have a developmental need and is not trying to be greedy provides an opportunity to show grace and not scold a child for taking too much. Just have an extra bag ready in case of emergencies.
Don’t expect a child to always respond verbally with the societal prompts of “trick or treat” on command. Autistic and special needs children may also experience delays with speech and social awareness, just as they do with fine motor skills. For instance, my son can say “trick or treat” all day long on repetition as an echo. He does not always know to say it when you approach a car or house. Once again, having grace and understanding is important for a congregation. Do not do things you think may be funny in the moment, such as jokingly withhold candy until someone says something. This could harm the child who cannot do what you want. Do smile and say something loving and kind to the child who may be doing the best they can.
Do have signage that uses multiple forms of communication. If you have games or crafts available for children at your event, consider having the rules or instructions printed out in a step-by-step format for children who may not be able to process verbal commands. You may want to consider having pictures to help guide someone on how to play the game or put together a craft. This is a great way to incorporate multiple forms of communication strategies to help make your event engaging for all.
Don’t get upset if someone who is “too old” to trick or treat shows up at your trunk or treat. Developmental delays can create a situation where a youth or adult may have the same emotional maturity as a young child. Do not kick out the youth or their family for being too old, nor should you scold the person for taking something from others. Do share a witness of God’s grace and perhaps engage in a conversation with the family or caregivers who are probably overwhelmed and need a chance to have a break.
Do see the child as a child of God and a person of worth. It is easy for the church, especially the small church, to be overwhelmed with reaching out to the special needs community. All you need to do is to be a loving witness of Christ that sees the person for who they are and try to see yourself in their shoes. This will allow you to have some emotional awareness and empathy for the person and the family and gives you the space to create a safe, fun, and welcoming environment for children with special needs and their families.