By Maxine Share
Like everything else related to autism, everyone’s experience of Halloween may be different. That being said, some common autism-related traits and features can contribute to the child’s experience of this annual celebration. When we know what our child’s autism identification means to them, we can help tailor the Halloween experience to make it a fun and positive one. Here are some things to think about as you count down to Trick or Treat!
SENSORY DIFFERENCES MAKE A BIGGER DIFFERENCE THAN YOU’D THINK.
The experience of dressing up for Halloween often involves donning and assortment of unusual fabrics, masks, wigs, or makeup. For children who are hypersensitive in their tactile system, this can be super challenging! The touch of certain textures may send stress hormones coursing through their body and trigger coping behaviour as the child tries to protect themselves from the tactile assault. This isn’t our little Halloween princess being a drama queen: the tactile system is part of our primitive brain, and it tells us if a touch is safe or unsafe. If the child’s sensory system says the tulle around the next of the costume represents imminent Danger! Danger! we can expect to see their survival response kick in—the fight, flight or freeze that we tend to refer to as a meltdown.
- Let them wear their costume over, rather than under, their coat.
- If they cannot tolerate the rain, the wind, or snow, have a Plan B figured out long in advance of Halloween night in case of inclement weather .
- Avoid houses where you can know there’ll be costumed monsters jumping out of the bushes, and houses with frightening , ghoulish scenes laid out. Some of our children cannot tolerate being surprised or frightened, and really don’t like the pounding feeling of a racing heart. (Though some of our kids LOVE to be frightened and seek those sensations!)
- Don’t talk your child into a costume, or into tolerating makeup or a mask. While some may be able to tolerate it for a short time, it may result in a difficult night, emotional distress the next day, and even long term obsessive thoughts if they really wanted a different one and you “made them” wear this one.
SAFETY, SAFETY, SAFETY
Our children may forget the safety rules entirely if they are anxious, distracted, or are simply following a crowd of children crossing ahead of them. Children on the spectrum may look like their typical peers, but many really struggle with attention and focus, seeing the big picture, and developing social-emotional maturity. While these are things we can see in typically-developing kids, too, ours must be taught these things directly. This lag in these areas can mean they aren’t paying attention to the traffic, and fail to read or accurately interpret social cues. These realities can lead to accidents, to having their behaviours misunderstood, and contribute to social vulnerability.
Taken together, these can mean it’s a good idea to ensure your child—even if your child is a teen—has adult supervision:
- Your 14-year-old may beg you to let him go on his own or with a friend, but if you keep in mind that his ability to problem- solve may be years behind his biological age, it’s a responsible choice to accompany him. We don’t want our children to be victims of bullies who would take advantage of them. You don’t need to hold his hand or walk right behind her—but you should be only seconds away if needed.
- Our children are at higher risk of bullying because of the gaps in social understanding. While they are developing social confidence and competence, it can help to keep them happy and safe if an adult is nearby.
Our children like to know what to expect, and what is expected of them. They often have a real intolerance of uncertainty. Take these realities into consideration when planning for Halloween night. A week ahead, create and post a visual schedule that lists:
- What time you will start Trick or Treating
- What time will your child begin to get in to costume
- How long you will stay out
- What route you will take
- A Plan B in case:
- The child is not feeling well.
- The weather is so bad they don’t want to go out.
- A urgent family issue pre-empts Halloween
- Let your child help you arrive at a Plan B. For example, could you watch a non-scary Halloween movie like Boxtrolls, Monsters Inc., or Hotel Transylvania? Could you make gross slime? Make Halloween themed cookies?
Halloween is a great opportunity to teach some social skills. Like so many things related to the autism culture, planning ahead is planning for success. Help your child be prepared for those unexpected questions and comments from adults along the route by acting, rehearsing, role modelling. Let them practice responding to different scenarios they may encounter on Halloween night, such as:
- What will you do if a homeowner says, “I want a trick’ when you say, ‘Trick or Treat?
- When someone says, ‘What are you supposed to be?’
- If someone says, ‘Aren’t you a bit too old to be Trick or Treating?’
- If someone says, ‘You look adorable!”
Let them practice these several times before the big day. Some children will enjoy and benefit from a social script, while others will have fun if you make this a game using flash cards. Practice one more time before leaving the house to Trick or Treat.
These natural environment opportunities to learn new social skills can help to build the child’s confidence along with social competence.