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Towards the middle of October, the air becomes crisper and sweeter, and the moon seems brighter. Children everywhere start to get excited about Halloween. But for some kids, including many who have autism and other special needs, Halloween can be a stressful time. Their routines are thrown off. Things just feel different. They are suddenly being told they are supposed to do things they are usually not supposed to do, such as demanding candy from strangers. Some children may start to have behavioral problems or have a lot of anxiety as Halloween gets closer. Here are some tips for how parents and other caregivers can help kids have a happy Halloween.
Adjust your own expectations.
When we have great childhood memories of our own Halloween traditions, or we have seen Facebook posts of our friends' children doing Halloween activities, we want to give those experiences to our own children. But things that are amazingly fun for some children may be nightmarish for others. Think about what your individual child will be able to handle. What would be the most meaningful Halloween experiences for them?
For some children, this might mean skipping Trick-or-Treating altogether and watching a mildly spooky movie instead, or staying home to help hand out candy. It might mean a shortened trip to the pumpkin patch, or painting a pumpkin instead of carving one because they can't stand the feel and smell of pumpkin guts. It may mean that your child refuses to wear a costume. Tell yourself that you don't have to create the picture-perfect Halloween experience. You just have to figure out how to help your child have fun without becoming too overwhelmed.
If you have more than one child, and your other children do want the day-long trip to the pumpkin patch, carve pumpkins, visit a haunted house, go to a Halloween carnival, and go Trick-or-Treating, see if you can recruit a relative or babysitter to stay with your more reluctant child on the days that those activities take place.
Of course, many children with autism will want to take part in many of the Halloween activities, and will be able to handle them. You just have to understand your individual child, and help them customize their Halloween.
If your child has sensory challenges, finding the right costume can be tricky. If your child is old enough, and verbal enough, they may be able to tell you what they are and aren't happy to wear. If your child is younger or nonverbal, you may have to figure this out by trial and error. Some children may not be able to tolerate face paint or masks. Some children who ordinarily hate face paint may be willing to tolerate it for a Halloween costume they really want. Some children may find costumes unbearable, while others may love the idea.
Be flexible, and remind yourself that it isn't extremely important that your child be seen in the Most Adorable Costume Ever.
For children who want to wear a costume but struggle with unfamiliar textures, look for a costume that is large enough for them to wear over something more comfortable, such as sweats. If you're crafty, or know someone who is, you can even turn a pair of sweats into a costume. Google "DIY Hoodie Costume" for some awesome ideas.
If your child refuses to wear a costume at all, that is okay. You can always compromise with a Halloween-themed T-shirt. It may be hard to let go of the idea of having a fun time helping your little one find a costume. That is understandable. But sometimes, you just have to be happy with what you can get.
Use social stories, schedules, and other visuals.
Knowing what is going to happen, and when, can help cut down on the anxiety your child may be experiencing. For example, if you are visiting a pumpkin patch, you can go to the website to find pictures of what you will see there. If your child is interested in maps, you may be able to find a map of the grounds of the pumpkin patch. If their class is having a party at school, ask the teacher for a visual schedule of the events of the party.
Social stories can be very useful for helping children understand the concepts of things like Trick-Or-Treating and scary costumes. You can find, or make, a social story explaining that your child may see scary costumes, but they are just people dressed up. Just Google "Halloween social story" for lots of examples.
Prepare for trick-or-treating.
Trick-or-Treating is the part of Halloween that many children look forward to the most. It can also be the scariest. Trick-or-Treating requires children to walk around their neighborhood while there are way more people out and about than usual, most of whom are in costumes. It requires knocking on strangers' doors and talking, which can be unnerving even to adults if they're introverts.
If your child is likely to behave in unexpected ways, such as refusing to say "Trick-or-treat" (or being unable to say it due to limited verbal abilities), it can help to know your neighbors. One easy way to do this is if you belong to the website, Nextdoor.com. You could put out a little note, to your neighborhood only, saying something along the lines of, "My son Timmy has autism. He may not say Trick-or-Treat, or please, or thank you. He may not make eye contact. He may not even take the candy you offer him. We want him to have a fun Trick-or-Treating experience, and we are relying on the kindness of our neighbors. If you see a Trick-or-Treater in a Buzz Lightyear costume, please don't scold him or pressure him if he doesn't speak." That may seem like too much private information to share with your neighbors, but it is an idea to consider.
If your child is unable or unlikely to say "Trick-Or-Treat" and exchange other niceties with people who answer the doors, you could also make a little sign for them to hold up instead.
It can also help to practice with your child ahead of time. They can practice by knocking at your door and saying Trick-or-Treat when you answer. If you know your neighbors, you can even do a dry run with your child. Map out the houses you want to visit, then practice going to their doors, knocking, and saying "Trick-Or-Treat" and "Thank you." (You might want to give your neighbors a heads up first, so they don't think you're a very confused parent who got the day of the week wrong!)
Decide how much Trick-Or-Treating you want to do. For some children, just going to one or two houses might be the perfect amount to give them the Halloween experience without exhausting them.
Some children may be unwilling or unable to Trick-Or-Treat at all. For them, some alternatives might be going to a sensory-friendly Halloween party in your area (or hosting your own at your house), letting your child help you hand out candy to Trick-Or-Treaters, enjoying a Halloween movie together, or taking a walk through the neighborhood to see the sites without having to approach any houses.
Dealing with Candy Overload
Whether or not they go Trick-Or-Treating, your child will probably acquire lots of candy on Halloween. If your child has allergies or food sensitivities, this can be a bad thing. You could simply confiscate the candy, but then you might end up with a heartbroken child who doesn't understand why you're taking away everything he worked so hard to collect.
One solution is to use a map such as the one provided by Food Allergy Research and Education, or the one provided by Nextdoor, to find houses that are giving away non-candy treats.
You could also set up your own candy-trade-in store. Purchase some fun non-candy prizes, or even larger toys that your child has been asking for. Put prices on them. For instance, a sparkly Halloween pencil may be worth just one piece of candy, but the new video game your child has been begging for may be worth 20.
Food Allergy Research and Education Map
Halloween can be stressful and overwhelming for children and their parents or caregivers. But it can also be a lot of fun. Just remember that even though your Halloween may not look like everyone else's Halloween, it doesn't mean it isn't the best Halloween for your individual child. What is important is the fun you will have together, and the memories you will make. Happy Halloween!