Ghouls and goblins may be spooky fun for some — but for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), this time of year can be challenging to navigate. Halloween is a holiday full of sensory overload including scary monster costumes, frightening decorations, elements of surprise and scaring one another during trick-or-treating, as well as dressing up and hiding behind disguises. It’s no wonder that Halloween may not be so happy for some families.
There are steps parents can take to help their child navigate the holiday and avoid circumstances that could make them upset or uncomfortable. First, parents should talk about what to expect before going to an event or trick-or-treating. The elements of those traditions can be very confusing to a child with ASD.
There are many ways you can help your child prepare for trick-or-treating. Try drawing pictures together or reading books that describe Halloween traditions so your child has a chance to ask questions and get acquainted with the various aspects of the holiday that could surprise him or her. Once you have reviewed the expectations and explained the process, it may be beneficial to role-play the process. Have a sibling or friend wait behind a door, and practice trick-or-treating. This is a fun activity to get everyone comfortable with this activity.
Addressing Challenges of Costumes
When it comes to disguises or costumes, for many children with ASD it is best to avoid masks or face painting — seeing an alternative appearance of themselves could be jarring. If friends or siblings are wearing masks, encourage them to lift it up to show the child they are still there and are a person they know and love.
Some children may be more comfortable dressing up as a favorite animal or superhero instead of a scary costume. If your child decides they would like to dress up for trick-or-treating or for school, encourage them to try on their costume several times before the actual event. Scratchy, synthetic and heavy fabrics can be confining and even upsetting for some children. If a costume doesn’t appeal to your child, it may be better to consider a Halloween-themed sweatshirt or T-shirt so they can be festive without wearing something that’s uncomfortable.
Navigating Halloween Night
If your family does set out to go trick-or-treating, you can subtly alert others that your child has autism and may require some TLC with a sticker on their costume. Some children may opt to avoid screaming “trick-or-treat!” and let them know that’s absolutely OK! Be prepared to let some households know that your child isn’t comfortable with yelling or noises if asked. Some people may have good intentions in asking kids to participate in traditional ways, and it may be necessary to casually explain why or point to your child’s sticker.
If your child uses an AAC device, pre-program it so your child can easily use it to communicate “trick-or-treat” and “thank you.” Don’t feel pressured to ensure they use it at every house to communicate, but having it as an option can be a great opportunity for your child to get extra practice with their device! The same goes with children who communicate with pictures or sign. Practice frequently before your family is scheduled to go trick-or-treating, so your child will have many opportunities to build up the skills needed.
It can be challenging for families that have one child with sensory issues and siblings that do not when it comes to planning Halloween activities so that all children in the family can enjoy the holiday. Instead of having to split up your family during these seasonal events, you can begin by working through the sensitivities or challenges together. Explaining that decorations, moving objects or lights are just pretend and not real can help them feel less frightened. Point out ghosts, spiders, witches and monsters and acknowledge their appearance can be frightening but reinforce they are not real. Let them know it’s understandable if they are scared of them and offer to be there for extra comfort and hugs. Bring along headphones or a sensory toy to help your child manage those overwhelming sensations when you are outside of your home.
Other Ways to Celebrate Halloween
If the sensory aspects of Halloween make it difficult for your child to enjoy Halloween events or activities, it may be better to avoid them and to find sensory-friendly activities in your area which can be found here.
While the specific tips in this article will help your family navigate the holiday together, it could also be enjoyable to create your own traditions at home if trick-or-treating and haunted houses pose too many challenges for your child to navigate. Instead, try some of these Halloween traditions instead:
- Read books that celebrate fall and non-scary Halloween themes like pumpkins, hayrides and picking apples
- Decorate Halloween cookies at home, or make Halloween bark
- Have a family movie night watching Halloween movies or TV specials
- Carve or paint pumpkins together
- Participate in a community Trunk-or-Treat, which tend to be less surprise-oriented
ABA therapy can help children with autism navigate all areas of their lives and reach their greatest potential. For more information, reach out to Acorn Health for a free consultation to learn about ABA therapy at 844-244-1818.