Halloween is one of the greatest days of the year for many kids. The sights, sounds and costumes are all part of the fun.
But for some children with special needs like autism, a night of dressing up and going door-to-door with throngs of other kids can be incredibly stressful. In fact, all holidays can present some unique challenges for kids on the spectrum, experts say.
“Most holidays are [difficult], Halloween especially,” says Ian Cohoon, the center lead board certified behavior analyst (BCBA) at Autism Home Support Services in Northville.
Trick-or-treating, for example, can be overwhelming for kids and even dangerous in some cases.
“I think it poses a safety risk for some of our kids,” who might be prone to running off, he says. “I would guess a lot of our parents just kind of avoid it because it might be too much of a hassle, too much risk, even some embarrassment with that as well.”
Other aspects of Halloween can be challenging, too. Here’s a look at five ways parents can help support their kids with special needs as the big day approaches.
1. Practice makes perfect
The best way to prepare for a successful Halloween? Give it a trial run.
“I think if you’re a parent the most important thing is just to practice,” Cohoon says. “This might mean that you go out a few weeks ahead of time, you go to a friend’s or neighbor’s or a family house that’s familiar and practice just going through the trick-or-treating, trying to practice the safety skills and the pedestrian skills – staying close, stop when you’re told. Waiting is another one, too, and practicing greetings.”
2. Consider alternatives
Trick-or-treating isn’t for everyone, especially if there are safety concerns or a child doesn’t feel comfortable going door to door around the neighborhood. Fortunately, alternative trick-or-treat events are becoming increasingly popular each year.
“I think parents are going to know their child the best so they’re going to know what their child is going to respond to,” Cohoon says. “If their child is not going to respond well to the noises or some of the sights, you might look for some alternatives.”
Consider a “trunk or treat” event in an enclosed parking lot or an indoor trick-or-treating event at a community center or church.
“Instead of going out at night you might look for a trunk-or-treat in the daytime, or a neighborhood that you’re more familiar with or just going to the houses that you know,” he suggests.
3. Be costume-conscious
Itchy tags and fabrics in everyday clothes are already a concern for some kids with special needs. On Halloween, choosing a comfortable costume can be tough.
“It might help to wear regular clothes underneath the costume and also look for alternatives,” Cohoon recommends. “If your child might not respond well to a costume, it might be OK that he just wears a sweater with a pumpkin or a themed shirt instead.”
4. Have a candy plan
That big bag of candy your child will come home with? Be sure to set expectations in advance about how much they’ll get to have.
“‘You can have X amount of treats tonight or per day'” you might tell your child, Cohoon says. “If you establish this beforehand that might help so the child isn’t expecting that they get this entire bag right now.”
And you might want to consider letting your child enjoy some of their treats as they go door-to-door.
“I think it’s OK to use those as a reward or reinforcer so if your child does a great job, if they stop [when asked] or they say ‘hi,’ feel free to use those treats to reinforce in the moment and recognize those positive behaviors,” he suggests.
5. Be a supportive neighbor
If you know there’s a child with autism in your neighborhood, ask the family how you can be supportive. There might be a way to make your Halloween display more sensory-friendly or, if the child has allergies or food restrictions, a certain treat they can safely enjoy.
You could also show your support for autism awareness on your porch.
“I’ve seen where people put a puzzle piece on a pumpkin so that could be an idea,” Cohoon says.
Do you have any other ideas for an autism-friendly Halloween? Tell us in the comments.