The Nightmare Before — and During — Halloween
This holiday of itchy costumes, flashing lights, strangers and candy can be a horror show, indeed, for children with autism, sensory processing disorder, ADHD and other neurological conditions. Here, a mother and health advocate shares her strategies for making Halloween fun for everyone.
As a mother of three children — including a daughter who has severe autism — I understand all too well about the challenges holidays bring, including Halloween. The following tips represent the lessons I’ve learned over the last several frightful seasons; I hope you can put them to good use with your family this Halloween.
1. SAFETY: Not all kids are comfortable with the dark — especially walking around at night. Use flashlights, glow sticks, and light-up sneakers to make it more fun and safe. Before you go, snap a picture of your child in his or her costume with your cell phone so you have the most up-to-date picture — in case your child wanders off. And don’t forget, there’s safety in numbers. Try to trick-or-treat with another family to have an extra set of eyes, ears, and hands to help out.
2. STRATEGY: Many kids do better when they have a routine and know what to expect. Plan the route you will walk ahead of time, talk about which neighbors and houses you will visit, and practice walking the route a day or two before October 31. Also, create a back-up plan to stop or address an emergency tantrum should something unexpected arise. If your child doesn’t have a lot of stamina for walking or gets easily overwhelmed, limit the number of houses you visit while it’s still fun — and before you get to the exhaustion stage.
3. SOCIAL SKILLS: The first few years I took her trick or treating, my daughter would just waltz into our neighbors’ homes after ringing their doorbell and stuff her cute face with candy. She did not understand that the open door wasn’t an invitation to come inside. Teaching proper social etiquette is a very important part of a successful Halloween, including: not entering the house, not taking more than one or two pieces of candy, and always using manners.
4. SCRIPTING: Have you ever thought about what the words “trick or treat” really mean? Your child may ask this question. If he or she is into history, Google the phrase and look up the origin of this saying. You can also work on teaching your child to say (or sign) “trick or treat” to the best of his or her ability, and don’t forget “thank you.” Make it work for them, whatever version that looks like.
5. SENSORY: Halloween is all about the costume, which can pose a huge difficulty for children with sensory issues. If your child is open to wearing a costume, try to find a looser, more comfortable costume — perhaps one that fits over more comfortable clothing. If they just can’t handle a costume, don’t fret … a unique shirt or hat works just fine! And feel free to wear no costume. Many people are quick to understand that some kids just can’t handle it. And, if you’re comfortable, Halloween could be an opportunity for spreading awareness. (“My daughter Annie has autism and doesn’t like to dress up, but she sure likes candy!”)