Halloween was HUGE when I was little. With six kids and incredibly creative parents, I think the fervor and excitement might have rivaled Christmas. It’s like that for most children. If you have a child “on the spectrum,” it can be fun, too. It just requires a different kind of planning and creativity.
Growing up, we were that family. You know, the ones with the scary soundtracks, tombstones in the front yard, webs, ghosts, mechanized rubber swooping bats, zombies, and giant spiders. We were the Griswolds at Halloween! I realize now that while we were anxiously anticipating Halloween, families with children on the spectrum were probably anticipating being anxious. Most little ones on the spectrum want to participate in Halloween “Trick or Treating.” But without a plan, this can be especially stressful.
Parents of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) know that their children perceive things differently from their peers. ASD characteristics often include “…social-interaction difficulties, communication challenges and a tendency to engage in repetitive behaviors.” (autismspeaks.org) ASD may have other accompanying symptoms, such as sensory sensitivity, anxiety in new situations, hyperactivity, inability to read social cues, and (what appears to be) impulsivity.
For ASD children, even everyday activities can be overwhelming. Events that aren’t overwhelming to other children may lead to “meltdowns.” However unpleasant, these are really only adaptive behaviors. Their need for preparation, routines, and rituals is simply a way to cope with overwhelming feelings. Once we understand this, we can easily identify potential Halloween pitfalls and plan accordingly.
Clothing can be a daily battle for children with sensory sensitivities. Many find clothes to be too scratchy or too tight. For some children, long sleeves or tags can be cause for anxiety. It can be very confusing. They may love a costume and hate the mask. One solution might be to create a costume from clothes you know they already like. For example, you might add duct tape stripes to an orange sweat suit to make a delightful tiger, or wear a red-and-white-striped T-shirt with blue pants and a cap for “Where’s Waldo?” My favorite costume was Sheldon from Big Bang Theory—take a permanent marker to a green T-shirt, write “Bazinga!” and you’re done!
Talk to Your Neighbors
One mother warned her neighbors that her eight-year-old will want to go into their houses. It makes sense to him—after all, he thought, “Why not? We always go in when we knock on someone’s door.” But you know, it’s a little different on Halloween. Another parent pre-informed his neighbors that his child was easily startled (e.g., by swooping rubber bats, masks, scary noises, etc…). Another parent, whose child was sensory-sensitive, knew their child would want to smell every piece of candy in the bowl. They suggested their neighbors hand their child one piece of candy. Taking the time to prepare your neighbors will ensure a more positive experience for everyone.
Take a dry run (or two, or three…); ASD children find comfort in routines and rules. Before Halloween talk about what they can expect and the rules of Trick or Treating. Let them try on their costume, or better yet, encourage them to wear it around the house as much as they like! Draw a map and walk them through the Trick or Treat route several times before the event. If you can, practice Trick or Treating with an informed neighbor.
Go out EARLY
According to the Almanac, sunset in my neck of the woods will be at 6:39 pm on Halloween. Plan to Trick or Treat before the sun sets. This will help to avoid older children, who prefer scary costumes, and tend to go out well after dark. This is especially preferable if your child is sensory-sensitive, as excited, sugar-amped children may be overwhelming to him or her, especially in the dark.
Have a Back-up Plan
Ultimately, even with the best planning, your little one may decide this is not for them. You’re going to need a fallback plan. Create a new Halloween tradition. Some families will order pizza and carve pumpkins, while others watch Charlie Brown’s Great Pumpkin and hand out candy. Whatever you decide to do, just remember, it’s all about making good memories.