Halloween is creeping up on us! While most kids can’t wait to dress up and prowl the neighborhood for candy, Halloween can cause a lot of stress and anxiety for kids with special needs. All the lights, masks, crowds, and costumes can be overwhelming. Halloween may be a bit more challenging for parents of special needs kids but that doesn’t mean it has to be any less fun! Here are some tips to help your child have a positive Halloween experience:
Most children benefit from knowing what’s going to happen when they are about to participate in an unfamiliar activity. Walk your child through the entire process from wearing their costume to politely asking for treats. Whether it’s a written schedule or one with pictures, your child will feel calmer and safer knowing what is coming next. For example, let your child know which events will be loud or crowded.
You can write a social story to read to them daily in preparation for the big night. Social stories give children very specific information about what they should expect and how to respond in a variety of situations. For example your story could start out, “Halloween is on Thursday. After dinner, I will put on my costume. We will go outside and see our friends…” Continue the story according to your child’s needs.
Another fun way to get your child excited about Halloween is to read him or her Halloween themed books. Here are a few suggestions of good books for early learners: 1) What is Halloween? By Harriet Ziefert, 2) Corduroy’s Trick or Treat by Don Freeman, 3) My First Halloween by Tomie dePaola.
Before leaving for any Halloween events, have a quick family meeting so that your whole family knows how long you plan to stay and how you expect them to behave. This also benefits neuro-typical kids since any child can get overwhelmed with the excitement of Halloween.
Children with sensory issues should practice wearing their costumes before an event. This will allow you to get rid of itchy tags or fabric ahead of time. It may be a good idea to bring a soft Halloween-themed outfit for your child to wear in case he or she can no longer tolerate the costume.
It may help your child feel more comfortable trick or treating if he or she can practice first. Try having your child ring the doorbell and say “trick-or-treat” at a friend or family member’s house first.
Kids with sensory issues may not be able to handle wearing costumes. Things like masks and make-up can make them feel very uncomfortable. Check the fabric of your child’s costume and make sure him or her is comfortable before going out. You can also dress your child in a familiar cozy outfit and simply add a hat or paint his or her face.
You can get extra creative if your child uses a wheelchair, walker, or crutches. For example, your child can be a firefighter on top of his or her walker decorated as a fire truck. Or crutches can complement a costume as the front legs of a giraffe or as octopus tentacles.
Generally, quite side streets will be more successful than main streets. If your child has motor issues or is in a wheelchair, try to find a street where the sidewalks aren’t cracked and where most of the houses don’t have stairs leading up to the front door.
Is your child non-verbal or is his or her speech difficult to understand? Make “trick-or-treat” and “thank you” signs that your child can hold up that also explain that he or she has speaking challenges. For example your child can hand out cards that say, “Trick-or-Treat! My speech may not be clear right now, but I want you to know that I’m wishing you a very Happy Halloween!”
Is your child fed via feeding tube or does him or her have strict dietary restrictions? Pick up some non-food items your child would enjoy and drop them off before hand at the houses you know you’ll be visiting. This also gives you an opportunity to let your neighbors know that you’re going to be trick or treating with your special needs child.
Have a code word your child can use if he or she feels overwhelmed and needs a break. Honor the code word by taking your child away from the stressful situation for a bit and discuss coping skills. Giving children a sense of control can help reduce anxiety and enhance the fun!
Trick or treating may still be too much for your child. Instead, try inviting some neighbors over and ask them to stand with a bowl of treats in different rooms around the house. This way, the kids can knock on the doors and trick or treat in the comfort of their own home.
Another great idea is trying reverse trick-or-treating. Dress your child up at home, and ask familiar family and friends to come over with treats in 15-minute intervals. Let your child answer the door with his or her treat bag and a greeting of “trick-or-treat!” The visitors leave their candy in the child’s bag, and the child gets to experience all the fun of trick or treating without leaving the house. This option is also great for children with mobility issues. You can also play a game of “guess what costume will come to the door next” to make the unexpected less scary.
The most important part of Halloween is your child’s experience; so don’t worry about how to make your child fit into traditional Halloween traditions. Instead, create a tradition that fits your child!