Halloween is that one day of the year when candy flows freely and kids can run through their neighborhoods yelling “trick or treat.” While some kids with autism have a typical fun Halloween experience, others may need a little more support. And that’s OK, says Jamie McGillivary, Board Certified Behavior Analyst and the executive director with Healing Haven, the Madison Heights ABA therapy center for kids and teens with autism and other developmental needs.
The social aspect of Halloween, with its ingrained traditions and rules, can make the night challenging for kids with autism, McGillivary says. “There may be sensory challenges regarding the child’s costume, or you have to take turns or wait when trick-or-treating. You can’t grab all the candy or run into the neighbor’s house. There can also be issues with food sensitivities,” she explains.
Yet, with a little flexibility, practice and preparation, your child with autism can have a really fun Halloween. Here, McGillivary shares some tips on how to create a fun Halloween for your child.
See Halloween through your child’s eyes
“Halloween is a holiday that is embedded into our culture and parents derive a lot of joy watching their kids experience the night,” McGillivary says. “This often means parents have certain expectations of how they want it to be, which can cause grief when we don’t get the perfect situation.”
When we learn to let go of expectations, we make room to enjoy a fun Halloween, no matter how it unfolds. “Go into Halloween with an open mind,” McGillivary suggests. “Your child may appreciate it in a different way and there’s beauty in that.”
This is a tip you can also apply to the rest of your parenting philosophy, she says. “For parenting in general, the more you strive for perfection, the further you get from it.”
Kids with autism often don’t understand social rules or expectations, but by planning ahead, you can decrease the confusion and anxiety that can lead to undesirable behavior, McGillivary says.
Kids respond well to visuals, so create a little book — often called a social story — that describes the rules of Halloween in pictures and words. Or turn to YouTube for videos that explain how to trick or treat.
If necessary, pare down to just the biggies and focus on these to start. “You can’t go inside the neighbor’s house, take only the candy that is given to you and wait until we get home to start eating candy,” McGillivary says. Before you head out, set a limit on how many houses you will visit, too. Choose a reasonable number so you end on a positive note rather than meltdown mode.
“There’s a lot of value in recruiting a peer model and siblings can play a wonderful role in this,” McGillivary says. “Cousins and friends can also provide assistance in practicing and modeling what kids are supposed to do when trick-or-treating. Just be prepared to step in when your helper is ready to go off and do other Halloween activities.”
Practice makes progress
Practice ringing the doorbell or knocking on the door. You can even do this at home, by closing each door inside your home and asking your child to knock. Be prepared to practice this a lot.
Encourage your child to say “trick or treat.” If your child is nonverbal, consider how they might “say” trick or treat, and recognize that neighbors may not be familiar with nonverbal communication or augmentative devices. “You can always step in and say ‘trick or treat’ or let your neighbor know that your child is still learning how to do that,” she says.
If your child has sensory challenges related to the costume, start days or weeks ahead of time to help your child increase tolerance to wearing their costume. “You can also modify the costume or teach your child slowly over time to be comfortable wearing it,” she says. Recognize that your child’s ABA therapy provider can help you by working on this with your child, too.
Another option is to create a makeshift costume using everyday clothes. “A firefighter can always wear jeans and a red T-shirt or jacket,” says McGillivary.
Have a fun Halloween, your own way
Teaching your child to indicate when they’ve had enough is a skill that works during Halloween and many other aspects of life. “Teach your child to say ‘no’ or ‘all done,’ and when possible, honor that. If you’re feeling like Halloween is going to be too much even after you have practiced, honor that too. Does it really matter if you don’t go trick-or-treating?”
Know that there are plenty of alternatives to traditional Halloween activities. Many community organizations sponsor trunk-or-treat nights so kids can experience trick-or-treating without all the social expectations. Trick or treat just at grandparents’ homes, or plan your own candy scavenger hunt at home with flashlights.
“Halloween won’t be for every kid, so if you suspect they’re not feeling it, teach them how to pass out candy or help put up decorations,” McGillivary offers. “What it’s all about is your child having a fun Halloween. Don’t be afraid to be creative. Whatever you do will be a fun part of your family’s story.”
Learn more about Healing Haven’s unique services for kids and teens at thehealinghaven.net.