From carving spooky pumpkins to going out trick-or-treating in their favorite costume, Halloween is an exciting holiday, especially for children. But not every child’s Halloween experience looks the same. From dealing with scratchy costumes to flashy lights, the holiday can get a bit stressful or overwhelming for many kids.  To celebrate a Halloween that is inclusive and enjoyable to all, let’s learn how we can tailor this experience to keep it spooky and fun for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Here are some things to keep in mind as you count down to trick-or-treating!

1. Create a safe sensory experience

The experience of dressing up for Halloween often involves donning 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 behavior as the child tries to protect themselves from what they perceive as a tactile assault. If the child’s sensory system says the tulle around the neck of the costume represents imminent 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.

Here are a few ideas on how you can help make children feel comfortable and ready:

  • Let them wear their costume over, rather than under, their coat if they wish to.
  • If they cannot tolerate the rain, the wind, or snow, have a plan B figured out in advance.
  • Avoid houses where you anticipate that frightening ghoulish scenes will be laid out. Some children cannot tolerate being surprised or frightened, and really don’t like the pounding feeling of a racing heart. (Even though some love to be frightened and seek these sensations)
  • Don’t talk the 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, or even long-term obsessive thoughts if they wanted a different one and you ‘made them’ wear this one.

2. Be there

Children with autism may forget the safety rules entirely if they are anxious, distracted, or following a crowd of children crossing ahead of them. Children on the spectrum may look like their typical peers, but many struggle with attention and focus, seeing the big picture, or developing social-emotional maturity. The lag in these areas can mean they aren’t paying attention to the traffic or fail to accurately interpret social cues. These realities can lead to accidents or have their behaviors misunderstood, contributing to social vulnerability.

Taken together, these can mean it’s a good idea to ensure the child – even if they are a teen – has adult supervision:
Your 14 year old may pester you to let them go on their own or with a friend, but if you keep in mind that their ability to problem-solve can get skewed in an unpredictable environment, it’s a responsible choice to accompany them. You don’t need to hold their hand or walk right behind them, but you should be only seconds away if needed.
While children on the spectrum are developing social confidence and competence, it can help keep them happy and safe if an adult is nearby.

3. Plan ahead so that the child knows what to expect

Children with ASD like to know what to expect, and what is expected of them. They often have an intolerance to uncertainty. Take these realities into consideration when planning for Halloween night.

A week ahead, create and post a visual schedule that lists:

  •  The time you will be starting trick-or-treating
  •  The time the child begins to get into costume
  •  How long will they stay out
  •  What route will be taken

Also, keep a Plan B ready in case:

  • The child is not feeling well
  • The weather is not good enough and they don’t feel like going out 
  • An urgent family issue preempts Halloween

Let the child participate in arriving at Plan B. For example, can they watch a non-scary Halloween movie like Boxtrolls, Monsters Inc., or Hotel Transylvania? Could they make gross slime or make Halloween-themed cookies?

4. Get ready for socializing

Halloween is a great opportunity to teach and practice social skills. Like so many things related to autism culture, planning is planning for success. Help the child be prepared for those unexpected questions and comments from adults along the route by acting, rehearsing or role modeling. 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. These natural environment opportunities to learn new social skills can help build the child’s confidence along with social competence.

Keeping the child’s sensory differences, individual preferences, and safety in mind, let’s make sure that the ghouls, goblins, and ghosts have a good time.

WISHING A SAFE AND HAPPY HALLOWEEN TO EVERYONE!

Additional resources to explore: 

  • #TreatAccessibly – a movement that encourages communities to celebrate Halloween inclusively. Read more
  • Autism Speaks talks about having a fun Halloween for kids on the autism spectrum. Read more

 

By Maxine Share, edited by Sonal Narvekar | Published on 30th October 2023

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