For many kids, Halloween is a treat for the senses — filled with oozing textures, creepy sights and luscious candy-filled scents. But children with autism or other sensory processing issues may interpret and react differently to these holiday activities.
"Children with sensory processing challenges can easily become overwhelmed with the wide array of sounds, sights and textures at Halloween time,” says Sandra Schefkind, Pediatric Program Manager at the American Occupational Therapy Association. But that doesn't mean that these kids need to sit out the Halloween festivities. Here are five tips from the AOTA that can help parents make Halloween a positive experience for children with sensory challenges:
Get prepared. Halloween traditions often clash with established rules, like taking candy from strangers. To help children understand what Halloween is — and is not — read stories that reflect your values ahead of time. Unpredictable events like the unexpected “boo” or changes in routine like new foods or places can be challenging for some children. Reviewing and rehearsing the activities through stories, songs and pictures will help your child anticipate activities more favorably.
Make costumes safe, comfortable and imaginative. Before shopping, parents should share costume guidelines with their children to prevent in-store meltdowns. Children should wear costumes in advance to test their comfort level when walking, reaching and sitting. Costumes that are too long or loose pose safety concerns like tripping or catching fire. Masks are not recommended since they inhibit breathing and vision. Beware of costumes with exposed tags or elastic parts. Consider whether your child will feel too warm or cold in character. Will your child be willing to wear a coat over his costume? Makeup may also feel slimy, and its smell may be off-putting. Will your child think the fabric is too scratchy, tight, slippery or stiff?
Less is more. A child with sensory processing challenges may appreciate the “less is more” approach. For example, a short cape may be enough for a superhero costume or a green shirt could indicate a turtle or frog. Same goes for trick or treating. Keep it short so that your kids will enjoy the experience without feeling overwhelmed.
Practice. Minimize the anxiety of the day by explaining to kids how it will work, and let them practice the routine. Practice the sequence of walking to the door, saying “trick or treat,” putting the treat in the bag and offering “thank you” at homes of familiar neighbors. Children may benefit from starting early and avoiding the dark. Consider trick or treating on quiet streets or only at homes of family and friends to keep the comfort level high. Skip homes with flashing lights, loud noises and especially scary decorations. Review and rehearse street crossing. Explain the rules for eating candy on Halloween night. Will they be allowed to eat while trick-or-treating or will they need to wait until they get home? How much candy will they be allowed that evening?
Know your kid. Some children will seek opportunities to touch “eyeballs” and pumpkin innards because they enjoy touching wet or squishy textures. Other children will prefer to keep their hands dry by decorating jack-o'-lanterns with stickers and markers rather than carving. In school and at Halloween parties, devise strategies ahead of time by inquiring what activities will be offered. For example, a child who may not like bobbing for apples could participate by putting the apples in the bucket. Consider planning an event with a few friends and save large parties for the future.
There’s no place like home. Know when to stop the festivities. Look for signs of sensory overload in your child: fatigue, hyper-excitability, crying and combativeness. Often, children like handing out the candy just as much as receiving it.