Halloween is right around the corner! Most kids can’t wait to don their costumes and make their way through the neighborhood, but for children with sensory sensitivities like those associated with ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorder, and Sensory Processing Disorder, Halloween can be stressful. At New Horizons Wellness Services, LLC, we want all children to enjoy Halloween, including those with special needs. With some careful planning and preparation, children with sensory issues and other special needs can enjoy this exciting time of year as well!
A lot of Halloween costumes can be a sensory nightmare, especially if they have tickly stuff like feathers, scratchy fabrics, and/or strong or strange smells from plastic and paints. Masks and head pieces can also feel constrictive or confining, and some children can find the sudden transition to new clothes stressful or otherwise feel uncomfortable with the idea of dressing up.
Selecting costumes that fit over the top of regular clothes can be a more comfortable option, or wearing a t-shirt as the costume instead. Trying out the costume ahead of Halloween night can help children get used to the change and new sensations.
Pumpkin carving is an activity with a lot of new and strong sensations, which can be unpleasant or overwhelming for children with hypersensitivities (e.g. slippery seeds, candle smoke, the pumpkin smell). Using battery powered tealights, cleaning the pumpkin out before carving or swapping it for fruits like apples, cantaloupe can give these children with a chance to join in without feeling overloaded.
Lots of children find new experiences easier to handle when they know what to expect. Even if you’ve been trick or treating every year since they were born, it doesn’t hurt to prepare them by explaining what will happen. Try watching some Halloween movies together (preferably ones where it all goes well and nothing scary happens! Such as, “It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown), reading books, role play or making a social story to help explain what they can expect and what is expected of them.
Explain the Rules
There are a number unwritten social rules or scenarios that we can forget to include when talking with children about Halloween. Trick or treating has a lot of them:
- When do you ring the bell?
- When do you say trick or treat?
- What do you do if nobody answers?
- How do you know which houses you can and can’t go to?
- What happens if they don’t offer a treat… do you have to do a trick?
- Is it okay to accept treats from strangers?
- What do you do with the treats that you get?
- When are they allowed to eat the treats?
- Do you go into the house or just wait at the door?
- Is it okay to visit houses and ring their bell on other days?
- How will they know when trick or treat is finished?
Visual supports/cues can helpful, especially the rules about when they can eat the treats (and how many).
Deal with Fears, Anxieties and Overload
For some children, one of the most stressful part of Halloween can be the lack of structure and change in daily routine. Having a plan and keeping the rest of the day as predictable as possible will help to reduce anxiety – eat dinner at the usual time, make a visual schedule of what you’ll be doing, and/or a map of the houses that you’re going to visit.
There’s a lot of waiting and impulse control required when trick or treating – waiting for someone to answer the door, not eating the treats right away – which can be a frustrating experience for some children. There’s also the surprise factor which can create a lot of tension – will someone answer the door, will they be wearing a scary costume, will they offer a treat, what happens if they don’t. These situations set the perfect stage for meltdowns, so keep an eye out for warning signs that your child is finding it difficult to cope. Take regular sensory breaks and be ready to head home early if it’s too much to handle.
For children who are fearful of the dark, having their own flashlight or glowsticks can make being outside at night a little less intimidating and scary. Alternatively, you can celebrate during the day by visiting a pumpkin patch or organizing daylight trick or treating with some friends.
All the excitement can make kids burn out quicker than they normally do, so keep an eye on how far you’ve walked (maybe arrange to have a car nearby for the drive home). Going at a different time than the bulk of the crowd is always a good idea. Even staying just five to ten minutes ahead of the crowd will help children avoid the overload, but still enjoy all the costumes and atmosphere as they head home.