How to make Halloween fun for kids with sensory issues
Most kids love Halloween. Between dressing up, trick-or-treating at houses decorated for fright, and getting endless candy, Halloween ranks up there with birthdays and the winter holidays.
It's different for kids who have autism or other sensory challenges.
Many are easily overwhelmed by new sights and sounds. Trick-or-treating in the dark with lots of children wearing costumes can be very difficult. And kids with special needs may not realize that the witch who answers the door is their neighbor or the child dressed as a Minion is their playdate friend.
So, should kids on the spectrum skip Halloween?
Not at all!
There are many ways parents can help children with autism and other sensory issues enjoy Halloween. Preparing early, being flexible about costumes and customizing traditions can make Halloween fun for the whole family.
Get a head start
Many kids with sensory challenges need extra time to prepare for new experiences.
Why wait until mid-October to try on costumes and practice trick-or-treating? Depending how much time your child usually needs to adjust, you can start getting ready for Halloween now.
Here are some suggestions to help prepare your child for the holiday:
• "Play" Halloween a few times a week. Put all the kids in their costumes (more about that later) and gather candy bags, small toys and treats. Then hide behind a closed door. Have your kids knock and say "trick or treat" to get a fun reward dropped in their bag.
• If speech is difficult for your child, consider printing cards he can hand out and practice using those. The card might say something like "Trick or Treat! Happy Halloween!"
• Enlist neighbors to help. Taking your child out in the afternoon or dusk to knock on a few friendly doors and get a small treat will make Halloween more familiar.
• Set the stage by reading stories about Halloween. Talk to your child about what she might do to participate.
• Create a visual schedule. Make a "map" of pictures to illustrate each step of Halloween so your child knows what to expect. The schedule might start with a picture of kids in costume knocking on a door, saying trick or treat and receiving candy. The visual schedule can present whatever Halloween celebration you've planned, from trick-or-treating to going to a party or visiting family.
The costume dilemma
Costumes are often especially hard for kids with autism and sensory issues.
Purchased costumes often feel slippery, scratchy and just different from everyday clothes. Not to mention that wearing a costume and seeing them on others can be upsetting.
Try choosing a costume with your child -- he might be excited about a character from his favorite show, game or book.
Also consider assembling a costume at home instead of buying one. This could be a fun project that gives your son time to get familiar with the costume. You can start with a favorite sweatshirt or T-shirt so he's comfortable.
Visiting a Halloween store is also a great way to take some spookiness out of the holiday. Showing your daughter so many costumes in the light of day can help her get ready for the big night.
If she's interested, make a game of holding up some costumes and looking in the mirror.
The same goes for scary decorations. Buy a few to play with at home so they're not so surprising on Halloween.
There are lots of ways to celebrate Halloween, so don't hesitate to tailor them to your family.
If your child is afraid of the dark, look for shopping areas and malls that offer daytime trick-or-treating.
Drive to friends' and family's houses where your child will receive a warm welcome, treats and lavish compliments on her costume. Or have a Halloween party at home.
Speaking of treats, candy may not be the best choice for your child. Small toys, stickers and other nonedible items can be just as fun. Use these at parties and give some to neighbors so they're prepared.
If wearing a costume is too scary or uncomfortable, a Halloween-themed sweatshirt or a pumpkin pin on your son's jacket is a good solution.
All parents want their children to have a great Halloween, but it's helpful to focus on what your child will truly enjoy. If your daughter gets to three or four houses and seems done, go home and celebrate that success. Maybe she'll get to six houses next year.
Halloween's mix of fun and fear can be strange for any child, but there's no reason it should be a nightmare for children with autism and other sensory challenges.
Starting early to help kids feel comfortable, finding a costume approach that suits your child and modifying Halloween traditions for your family are the keys to a Halloween that's fun for all.
• Katie Taylor is a board-certified behavior analyst for metro Chicago's Autism Home Support Services. She manages AHSS' Northbrook Autism Center and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.