Halloween is the only holiday that invites kids’ imaginations to run wild — and rewards their creativity with bags full of candy. What’s not to love? But how can you make Halloween fun for your child with autism?
Designing the most creative costume in the neighborhood can be difficult. But delivering Halloween fun for a child with autism spectrum disorder can be more challenging because the holiday brings unique sensory challenges that parents may not have anticipated.
“Halloween can stir up a lot of big emotions,” says Nikki Griffin, a board-certified behavior analyst with Chicago-based Envision Unlimited, a 73-year-old organization that provides ABA therapy for children 2-17 years old with autism.
“For a child, excitement, fear and anxiety can run hand-in-hand,” Griffin cautions. “Even if your child seems super happy and excited and really into their costume, once you are trick-or-treating in the dark, there are sights that could spook them.”
Who hasn’t jumped at a particularly gory monster mask, fake blood, flashing lights and witches that pop out unexpectedly? Even the sheer amount of frenetic activity can be overwhelming. “Some parents might not have considered that large groups of kids running around and screaming can really cause sensory overload,” she adds.
With a little foresight and flexibility, you can create plenty of Halloween fun for your child with autism. Griffin offers some simple tips for a successful, enjoyable celebration.
Watch for signs of overload
You know your child best, so it won’t be too difficult to sense when they are uncomfortable. Stay tuned in to your child’s behaviors, suggests Griffin, and bear in mind that what wasn’t scary last year might be too much to handle this year. Maybe your child is perfectly relaxed close to home or in familiar surroundings, but less comfortable when they are in an unfamiliar area.
“Throughout the evening, check in with your child as much as you can,” she says. “Notice their body language, especially if they are nonverbal. They might cross their arms or clutch their arms close to their body. Or you may notice their facial expressions change.”
During the lead-up to Halloween, watch your child’s reactions to the decorations they notice in the community, neighborhood or even on TV. If your child exhibits discomfort, take note and be prepared to navigate away from a potentially frightening situation.
Some ways to prepare your child for Halloween
Social stories can be very effective at helping children prepare for the Halloween season and for the routines of trick-or-treating. Griffin suggests looking online rather than reinventing the wheel here. “You can even Google Halloween-themed social stories for your child’s age,” she says.
Search online for videos and fun songs to help your child prepare to choose a costume, go trick-or-treating and accept candy at each home. Griffin also suggests Super Simple Learning and Super Simple Songs to help kids grasp the concepts of Halloween.
Every popular children’s show will also have a Halloween episode and your child might enjoy seeing how their favorite characters anticipate and celebrate the holiday.
Reinforce coping skills that your child has already mastered to help manage any sensory overload that may crop up. “Even if your child knows how to take a deep breath or ask for a break, in the midst of Halloween excitement, they might need a reminder from a parent,” Griffin says. If your child is calmed by a firm hug, pull them aside for a big squeeze and to check in.
Use your ABA resources
Your ABA therapy provider can be a tremendous resource for you in the lead-up to Halloween, so don’t hesitate to ask for help practicing specific skills.
“Your ABA therapist can really help your child practice putting on and taking off their costume, as well as knocking on a door or ringing a doorbell and using their preferred method of saying trick or treat, whether that’s verbally, by using sign language or a device,” Griffin explains. Kids can also role play accepted ways of giving and receiving treats.
The skills your child learns in the context of Halloween fun are the general life skills of communicating, getting dressed and sharing, Griffin says. Don’t be afraid to reinforce these skills as much as you can before Halloween.
The most important aspect of Halloween is enjoying a fun time with your kid — and that can look different for each child on the autism spectrum. “And that’s OK,” says Griffin. “You know your child best, so use that knowledge to guide what Halloween looks like. You might just as happily stay home and decorate cookies, pass out candy to trick-or-treaters or watch videos. Halloween doesn’t have to be something that stresses you out.”
Perhaps the most important tip is to give yourself the grace to enjoy Halloween fun your own way. “We put a lot of pressure on ourselves to make Halloween perfect, but there’s no right way to do it,” Griffin says. “It’s just about having a good time.”
Learn more about autism therapy at Envision Unlimited at envisionunlimited.org/autism