By Mardie Ninno – Margaret L. Williams Developmental Evaluation Center, Kohl’s Autism and Related Disorders Program
Most children really enjoy Halloween!! They love the pumpkin faces, the candy they get trick or treating, the costumes, and many of the older children love the scary movies and haunted houses that seem to be everywhere during October. But for some children, especially children with Autism Spectrum Disorders or children with sensory or anxiety disorders, Halloween can be a really difficult time. Many of these children are uncomfortable with new and different routines, foods, clothing, etc, and Halloween certainly brings with it many novel and unusual sights, activities, and even foods. Children with sensory issues may be hypersensitive to such things as the feel of the insides of pumpkins, the texture or fit of their costumes, or the unexpected and eerie sounds and music that might accompany a Halloween Party or trick or treating. So how can families celebrate Halloween in ways that will help their children with these issues to feel comfortable and hopefully actually enjoy the season?
Offer Choices so your children can decide what would be fun for them to do at Halloween. Listen to their comments about what they would and would not like to do, and make sure they are an active participant in the decision making.
Prepare, prepare, prepare your child ahead of time! All of us are more comfortable when we know what to expect, and for children on the Autism Spectrum, this is crucial. Think about what activities your family would like to participate in.
Outside Activites Do you want to visit a pumpkin patch that involves going on a wagon ride? Then you might want to read books about visiting a pumpkin patch, look at the web site of the farm you will be visiting with your child, or look for You Tube or other videos of this activity. Share these visuals with your child. Remember, children with Autism tend to process visual information very well, so showing rather than just telling them what the pumpkin patch will be like will be even more effective.
Costumes Do you want to dress up and go trick or treating in your neighborhood as a family? Again, introduce your child to the idea of dressing up in a costume way before the big day. Show them pictures of costumes in catalogs or on line. Visit the costume section of a store to see costumes. Help your children to choose their own costumes, and then let them have lots of opportunities to wear them before Halloween. Some children may have difficulty with the tags, seams or textures of their costumes, so be sure to have them try on the costume before they have to wear it. That will avoid melt downs and upsets by children whose bodies just don’t feel good surrounded by a slippery fabric or too tight hat.
Trick or Treating Think about walking your trick or treat route with your children ahead of time, so that they are familiar with where they are going. And practice the actual act of trick or treating at home. Trick or treating can be broken down into these 4 easy steps:
- Knock on the door
- When someone answers, say “Trick or Treat”
- Open your bag so that the person at the door can put in candy or a treat
- Say thank you
You might want to make a visual card to take with you to remind your child of these steps. Or you might want to program these phrases into your child’s communication device. Or you might want to write a social story about what trick or treating will be like and read it several times at home with your child.
Decorating Pumpkins: Some families like to decorate pumpkins together. Your child with sensory issues may not like the feel of the insides of the pumpkin. Or your child may be frightened or disinterested in this activity. If that is the case, consider one of these options:
- Offer your child gloves to wear or a spoon to use for the pumpkin scooping
- Provide other craft materials to decorate the pumpkin that the child does like. These might be markers, paints, colored tape, stickers, etc.
- Dress up your pumpkin with your child’s clothing or toys. Put her hat on the pumpkin’s head or have the pumpkin pose with a favorite stuffed animal.
Halloween Treats If your child does not like the treats that are likely to be handed out at trick or treating or at Halloween parties, consider bringing foods that he/she will like. Or bring non-food treats you know your child will enjoy. You can also try introducing your child to new Halloween foods such as pumpkin cookies and candy corn at home ahead of time. Your child will be more likely to try a new food in the comfort of his own home than in a strange place.
Halloween can be a really fun time for families. Thinking about the activities you would like your family to do ahead of time and preparing your child for them will go a long way to making sure it’s a real treat for everyone!
Armond Goes to a Party: A book about Asperger’s and Friendship by Nancy Carlson and Armond Isaak 2013 recommended by Mary P. Laverty Golisano Children’s Hospital in-house Librarian
A perfect book to share with children nervous about going to a party or any new social event. The colorful pictures and realistic dialogue make this a perfect read for guests and hosts alike.