A little Halloween practice – Santa Rosa Press Democrat

For many kids across Sonoma County, the end of October is a time of gleeful anticipation as they choose their Halloween costumes, visit haunted houses and plan their trick-or-treat routes.

But for children with special needs like autism, developmental delays or behavioral disorders, holidays like Halloween can pose daunting obstacles.

So on Sunday, kids with special needs and their families gathered at the Finley Community Center in Santa Rosa to practice for Halloween at a daytime party, part of a first-ever event organized by the Matrix Parent Network and Resource Center.

“The jack-o-lanterns, the scary masks, everything is not in their box,” said Rhonda Ducharme, a board member and parent volunteer with the Novato-based nonprofit, referring to special-needs children. “This gives them a tangible memory that parents can refer back to.”

Ducharme, who has a 12-year-old son on the autism spectrum, said most kids like her son thrive on routine. They can be easily overstimulated by sensory inputs like lights, crowded rooms, noises and uncomfortable textures from costumes. And imaginative play, an important aspect of Halloween, is not a natural behavior for some of these children.

So when a holiday comes along with an array of unusual activities, one of the most important things parents can do is help their kids know what to expect, Ducharme said.

“Preparing kids ahead of time is 100 percent key,” she said.

In 2014, there were 10,076 kids in special education at public Sonoma County schools, according to data collected by the California Department of Education. That number includes children with autism, learning and physical disabilities, emotional disturbances and speech or language impairments.

Kids with such conditions are sometimes excluded from holiday parties held by their peers, said Juno Duenas, executive director of Support for Families of Children with Disabilities in San Francisco. Parents of these children, Duenas added, can also feel alienated from their communities.

“It’s exhausting to go out into the community and feel rejected and stared at and told you’re doing things wrong,” said Duenas, who has an adult daughter with disabilities.

Sarah Ponsford, whose 11-year-old daughter has developmental disabilities, said Sunday’s event provided families with support and kids with a more relaxed play environment.

“Their lives so often are filled with so many therapies, so this gives them a chance to just have fun, and get ready for trick-or-treating,” Ponsford said. “It’s a lot of transition — walking to a door, saying hello, getting candy… and here, parents also realize that they’re not alone.”

Such events also show parents that their children “can have success and feel included,” she said.

“There’s nothing better in the world than seeing your child be cherished and feel included and be interested in what’s going on around them,” said Duenas, whose group organizes an annual Christmas ice-skating party that draws 400 families each year.

The events are important opportunities for parents to network and learn strategies from each other, said Kristie Anderson, parent advisor and outreach coordinator at Matrix, and mother of two children with special needs.

For example, she offered a trick-or-treat suggestion for non-verbal children at Sunday’s event.

“We have little signs for them to hold up that say ‘I don’t talk because of a disability,’” she said.

Anderson was part of the organizing team for Sunday’s party, which included sensory activities like trampolines, tunnels, chairs that spin around and kinetic sand. Volunteers opened doors for kids who wanted to practice knocking and asking for candy and children could try on items from a costume chest or decorate pumpkins.

But what if parents decide that Halloween is just too stressful for everyone and choose to ignore the holiday? Anderson, like other advocates, encouraged parents to overcome their hesitation and, in some cases, fear, and try to participate in some way.

“This is an opportunity for parents to get more comfortable and find support,” she said.

That viewpoint is shared by other advocates of special-needs children.

“Being able to practice can affirm parents’ thoughts that maybe Halloween isn’t the right experience, or it can open the door to Halloween for them,” said Ali Watters, director of family services projects and content at Autism Speaks, a national advocacy organization. “No matter what, it’s a win-win.”

Even if a child has a meltdown at an event like the one on Sunday, it’s a safe environment with no pressure to control behavior or apologize, said Ducharme.

“With (my son) specifically, he doesn’t have a ton of friends,” she said. “This gives him an opportunity to be with kids that have the same challenges that he does so he’s not labeled and there’s no judgment — he gets to have fun with his peers.”

Jennifer Mahdavi, chair of the Educational Leadership and Special Education Department at Sonoma State University, said children with disabilities should be included in as many experiences that other children enjoy as possible.

“Halloween is one of these, but so are birthday parties, soccer teams, recess time on the playground, and participation with their same age peers in classrooms and school activities. All children ought to be able to be able to socialize and learn with others who are like them, as well as those who are different. Typically developing children and those with disabilities can learn a great deal from each other, but only if they are able to play and work together,” she said in an email.

You can reach Staff Writer Ariana Reguzzoni at 521-5205 or ariana.reguzzoni@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @arianareg