Dressing up is a fun way to teach imaginative play and is often used as a theme at school or daycare. It is also a tradition for those who celebrate Halloween and trick or treating. Recently, my son’s daycare asked that all girls arrive to school in a princess theme costume and all boys arrive wearing a super hero theme costume.
As much fun as this may sound, for some children with autism, this change in the routine may present some problems. On the other hand, you may have a little one that adores wearing his/her costume — in fact, you may have a hard time getting him/her to wear anything else. That is a whole other article! Aside from some of the potential sensory considerations that go along with costumes (e.g., face paint vs. a mask with an elastic that is tight around your head) there are also some safety considerations (e.g., avoiding trip hazards of a long gown) that can help make the experience more fun and ultimately more safe for your child.
Here are some tips you can use to prepare your child with autism for costume days and to help ensure that when they are wearing a costume, they are as safe as they can be:
1. Select a costume that suits your child
You know your child best and I’m going to guess you would likely choose something that aligns with his/her interests and something he/she would like to dress up as. If you are being held to a particular theme, offer lots of different choices for them to choose from. There are a lot of different superheroes, it is just a matter of finding the one that is most interesting to your child.
Once you know the character, then you would set out finding something that suits your child’s specific needs. Can they wear a mask? If so, can it cover the entire face or would a smaller option that only covers the eyes work better? Or would a mask be completely out as an option and instead would you be able to apply make-up?
All of these considerations would best be determined by what you know about your child. If your child would rather wear something that does not align with the theme of the day then you could even ask if there could be an accommodation to the theme or if you could get advance notice of potential themes so that you can prepare your little one for the festivities.
2. Select a costume that promotes safety
Some general things to keep in mind when selecting the costume are how well can your child see, breathe, move around and be seen in this particular costume. You would want to ensure that the openings for the eyes allow your child to see as though he/she was not wearing a mask. This means that the openings are large enough, that they do not obstruct peripheral vision and that they do not move around or slip a lot, potentially blocking vision completely for short periods of time.
You would want to make sure that your child is able to breathe and that the openings around the mouth and nose will not suffocate. This may sound like common sense, but in some cases your child’s most preferred choice is not the safest, so you need to make adjustments to the costume when necessary. You would also want to make sure that if there are gowns involved, or costume components that cover feet and/or boots/shoes, that they are not a trip hazard. Keep all ties and strings from being tied around the neck.
Comfort is key here, but it will also help to ensure there are no unnecessary accidents. In some instances I have had to use scissors to make some minor adjustments to my son’s costumes. I have also heard that some schools ban young children from wearing masks. Instead they are encouraged to wear face paint.
Finally, if you are going to be partaking in any Halloween, trick-or-treating festivities out in the community in the early evening, you would want to make sure your child can be seen as he or she walks around the neighborhood. This may mean selecting a costume with a bright color, or using reflector tape on some parts of it. Check out my blog on street safety as well for tips on how to teach your child with autism road safety.
3. Practice wearing the costume
If your little one is opposed to the whole costume wearing thing, if you are given enough notice, you can work on that with some rehearsal. You could start by having him/her wear it for very short intervals of time and gradually work up to a longer period of time.
Make sure that you praise him/her for wearing it for the short periods of time and gradually increase how long he/she is expected to wear it. You can use visuals to help the child see how long it will last. For example, there are timers that have visuals that indicate the progression of time. These may be of use if your child is learning to wear a costume for increased periods of time.
Wearing a costume for a planned activity in a school or for a theme based group activity is a great way to work on including your child with autism. If you need help working on this type of skill with your child, then I highly recommend contacting a local Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) as they would be able to help you set something up that is individualized to suit your unique child’s needs.
Sarah Kupferschmidt has her Masters in Psychology with a specialization in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) and is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) who has worked with hundreds of children with autism and their families since 1999. She has clinically supervised and trained hundreds of staff on how to implement treatment strategies that are based on Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), she conducts parent coaching and training in the form of workshops for families and teachers on a variety of topics (e.g., safety skills, toilet training, language development, using technology to teach, and challenging behavior) just to name a few. She is a Part-Time Professor and Co-Founder of Special Appucations, which is an mhealth company that develops solutions for children with special needs using ABA to inform the instructional design. Sarah has appeared on Hamilton Life, CP24, CHCH news, the Scott Thompson radio show, The Bill Kelly radio show and on A Voice for All on Rogers TV and Mom Talk Radio.
This article was featured in Issue 39 – Working Together to Communicate Better