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Celebrating Halloween for Families of Children with Autism

Halloween can be a tricky time for children with autism. There is so much potential for overstimulation, from buckets of candy to loud noises and spooky decorations. Rest assured, however, Halloween can still be an enjoyable time for all! 

With a bit of extra preparation and consideration, families of children with autism can ensure a fun, safe, and comfortable environment for everyone. Read on for tips on enjoying this exciting time of year.

Prepare for the excitement

Many children struggle to adapt to sudden or unexpected transitions. Holidays tend to be full of the unexpected from new environments and activities to unusual sounds and sights, to drastically modified schedules and routines. If your child struggles with changes that come with holidays, spending a little time preparing them for these changes can go a long way.

Halloween preparations might include:

  • Reading social stories about the upcoming events in the week(s) leading up to Halloween. Ask your child follow-up questions to increase engagement with the story. 
  • Talking about Halloween often; Explain to your child what they can expect to do, see, etc. on Halloween and during the weeks leading up to the holiday.
  • Reading books and/or watching movies about Halloween to familiarize your child with the holiday and its experiences. 
  • Creating a calendar or a visual countdown to visually identify the number of days until the holiday.
  • Practicing ahead of time; Practice having your child wear their costume at home to get comfortable with it, practice saying “trick or treat”, etc. 
  • Map out your routes. If you’re going trick or treating, prepare your route in advance. Practice walking those routes, so your child begins to become familiar with them. 
  • Prepare a backup plan in case things don’t go as planned. A plan B is always good to have. If you don’t end up needing it, great! However, you’ll be glad you have it if the planned events don’t work out. 
  • Plan for adequate breaks in activities. Avoid jam packing your days with activities, allowing for plenty of downtime and sensory breaks, as needed. 
  • Prep headphones or anything else that might be needed to make your child more comfortable.

Adjust your expectations & Remain flexible

It’s important to identify and respect your child’s limits. If neighborhood trick-or-treating (or any activity for that matter) is likely to be more stressful than enjoyable for everyone, then consider alternative activities. It’s okay if your child is not quite ready for certain holiday festivities. It’s best to stick to what they’re comfortable with. 

Remain flexible if your plans don’t go quite as planned. You may think your child is ready for a particular activity, but once it starts, it quickly becomes a nightmare. Stay calm. This is where plan B comes into play. Perhaps even plan C, if needed. Discuss in advance what plan B will look like, so your child knows what to expect.

Sensory-friendly experiences

Halloween can bring so many new visual, auditory, and tactile sensations. Spend some time preparing for these. Halloween costumes, for example, can be uncomfortable for children with sensitivities to particular textures. There are endless options for costumes. Allow your child to touch and explore the textures of multiple costumes before selecting one. You may want to steer clear of costumes with hats, masks, and/or face paint, particularly if your child finds things on their face and head aversive. You may also consider having a backup costume readily available, in the event that the planned costume doesn’t workout. 

Alternative activities

It’s easy to get caught up in thinking that holidays have to go a particular way. For example, on Halloween, we must dress up and trick or treat. This perception likely comes from one’s own experiences and cultural expectations. However, for a truly enjoyable holiday for the whole family, it’s best to be flexible and willing to change it up. There are many alternative ways of enjoying this time of year without engaging in the more typical activities that are often overstimulating to autistic children.

– Craft night

Does your child love hands-on sensory exploration? Perhaps try a craft night! There are so many fun ways to get into the spirit of Halloween through art. Paper plate spiders, slime monsters, and more! This article shares 15 sensory-friendly Halloween craft ideas you may want to check out.

Pumpkin carving can be a hit or a miss. If your child isn’t a fan of the smells and textures associated with the insides of pumpkins, there are alternatives to traditional pumpkin carving. Instead, you might opt for stickers or paint. 

– Fall sensory bins

Sensory-seekers will likely enjoy Fall-themed sensory bins. Fill up a container with items such as pinecones, leaves, dried corn, chestnuts, yarn, etc. Allow your child to dig in and explore. 

– Movie night in

Pick a Halloween-themed movie together. Be sure to choose a movie that your child will enjoy that won’t be too over-stimulating or scary. Here are a few ideas:

  • Curious George: A Halloween Boo-fest
  • Mater and the Ghostlight
  • It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown
  • Pooh’s Heffalump Halloween Movie
  • Halloweentown
  • Coco
  • Hotel Transylvania

– Indoor trick or treating

You can get creative and create a trick-or-treating experience indoors! Perhaps even try turning it into a scavenger hunt of sorts. Indoor trick-or-treating may be a safer choice for children with food allergies or sensitivities. 

– Pass out candy

Some children find excitement in handing out candy. If going trick or treating isn’t quite their thing, see if they’d like to help pass out the candy. They can still be in costume and enjoy taking part in the festivities.

Safety Considerations

Unknown or unusual sights and sounds may increase the risk of wandering. As such, it’s important to assess your child’s safety in your holiday plans. 

  • If possible, go trick or treating during the day, avoiding going out when it’s dark outside.
  • Ensure your child can be easily observed; Bright colors, distinguishable costumes, glow lights, and/or reflective lights are recommended. 
  • Have a form of identification on your child, as a safety precaution in case they do slip away. A bracelet or tag on their costume would be perfect. 
  • Designate one adult who can dedicate their full attention to your child.

Having a safe and enjoyable Halloween is possible for all families. Find the right balance for your family using the strategies and recommendations above. Happy Halloween to all!