Halloween is easily one of the most anticipated holidays for children. It’s a day to dress up in the most fantastic costume, be anything you want to be, play pretend, and eat all of the sugary, sweet, colorful candy your parents never let you eat any other day of the year.
But, as parents of children with special needs, we know the day is not quite that simple. We want our children to have fun and make wonderful memories along with the 41 million other children celebrating in the United States; however, there are always a few “scaries” we need to address first. For instance, a few haunting questions probably include:
- What costume will work for my child with sensory challenges?
- How do I let my child participate without risking safety or sensory overload?
- How do I maintain a controlled environment with so many kids, adults, and other unpredictable factors?
- What about my child’s food allergies or specialized diet?
- For my child with communication challenges, how will the “trick-or-treat” exchange go?
You likely know the steps you need to take to make Halloween as fun as possible for your child. The stress comes from encountering external obstacles that may disrupt your best efforts and your child’s ability to enjoy the day. Here are a few strategies to consider as Halloween approaches:
1. Costume decisions
Halloween is a fun time and many children enjoy choosing to dress up as a favorite character. Many “off-the-rack” costumes have tags and are made of itchy material; this will likely not fly with many of our children with autism. Be creative and create costumes that allow your child to wear what he/she prefers but still participate in dressing up.
Local stores and companies sell T-shirts that resemble how characters dress, such as a Toy Story t-shirt with Woody’s vest and sheriff’s badge or Doc McStuffins t-shirt with a stethoscope. Children can also choose to wear festive Halloween clothing. Let your child participate in selecting a costume, and practice wearing it prior to October 31.
2. Practice makes perfect
Just as you are going to practice wearing the costume, parents should “practice” trick-or-treating activities so children know what to expect. Begin by reading stories or watching videos about the events of Halloween. Talk to your child about things he/she may see or hear on Halloween night.
The flashing lights, music, fog machines, and crowds of excited, running children cause a sensory overload for our children with ASD. Scope out your neighborhood for any overly decorated houses that you may want to avoid, speak with some of the neighbors to let them know that you will be “practicing” trick-or-treating and see if they would participate. In the daylight, walk the route you plan for trick-or-treating, then practice the route at dusk, and again when it is dark to see all of the Halloween decorations. If neighbors allow, knock on doors to practice trick-or-treating.
Often times, schools or classrooms for children with special needs will incorporate practice for participating in Halloween activities through the month of October.
3. Salute the Teal Project
In recent years, you may have seen more homes with teal or blue pumpkins on the doorstep. They aren’t just decorative—they indicate a house that will be giving out food-allergy friendly treats as part of the Teal Pumpkin Project. These “treasures” might include toys, crafts, stuffed animals, sunglasses, etc. that make trick-or-treating more inclusive for all children.
Lead the charge in your neighborhood by becoming a teal pumpkin house and invite others in your neighborhood to participate. If your child collects candy but is unable to eat it, create a system that he or she can use the candy as tokens to “buy” special activities, screen time, or prizes that you provide.
Many children with autism have communication-related needs; therefore, speaking the words “trick-or-treat” is not an option. This is an opportunity to advocate and raise awareness in the community. If your child communicates with an augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) device, ask your speech therapist to practice saying trick-or-treat and thank you during therapy sessions.
Incorporate the use of the communication device during your practice Halloween routes. Print a picture that your child can show when a door is answered to expresses “trick-or-treat.” Have a neurotypical sibling or neighbor that you are trick-or-treating with act as a peer model. There are many ways to communicate without speaking words; this is a time for your child to receive immediate reinforcement for communicating in his/her natural environment!
5. Engage your community
Your child isn’t the only one facing “scaries” this Halloween. According to recent estimates, 1 in 40 children has a form of autism. There are other families in your community who are torn between participating in the Halloween festivities and keeping their child home. As you’re doing your “prep work,” scouting out the neighborhood, and painting your pumpkins teal, invite your neighbors to join you.
Create a “cheat sheet” with suggestions on how to create a sensory-friendly Halloween experience, share your concerns in your community Facebook group, or have a few face-to-face conversations with neighbors you trust to educate and invite them into your plan. This approach can be a unique way to raise awareness and create a better experience not only for your child but for other children and families with autism.
A final piece of encouragement—some years Halloween will be great, and other years it will be tough, but that’s true anytime you get a group of kids and a lot of sugar together. Don’t put too much pressure on one night! Choose the few activities or traditions that are important to your family and focus on finding a way to make them memorable.
This article was featured in Issue 93 – ASD Advice for Today and Tomorrow