By the time the autumn leaves fly, kids everywhere are counting down the days until that most-favorite holiday: Halloween. What’s not to love about a day dedicated to dressing up in costumes and collecting a huge stash of candy?
For families that include a child with sensory issues, Halloween can be a difficult holiday to celebrate, says Mallorae Theobald, Board Certified Behavior Analyst with Autism Home Support Services in Northville. Frightening or unexpected noises, trick-or-treaters shouting and ringing doorbells, scratchy costumes, even a break in routine can cause upset.
Parents of kids with autism don’t have to shun the holiday entirely. By recognizing that there is no one right way to celebrate Halloween, and being armed with a flexible, well-planned approach, parents can create a wonderful, memory-making holiday for their child on the autism spectrum.
Here, Theobald offers tips for making Halloween a memory-building holiday for you and for your child.
Stick to your child’s strengths.
“You know your child best, so start at their level,” Theobald says. “We all want to set up our children for success.” Sensory-seeking kids may love scooping the slimy seeds out of a pumpkin, while those who dislike that feeling (or smell!) may enjoy coloring the pumpkin with markers instead. “If we remember that trick-or-treating at five houses was too much last year, maybe visit just one house, then head back for a Halloween celebration at home,” she says. If the doorbell is overwhelming, there’s nothing wrong with turning the porch lights off and skipping giving out candy this year.
For the child who likes to know what to expect, visual aids can be enormously helpful, Theobald says. Create a list of what to expect, or a chart with pictures that depict a visual schedule of the holiday’s events – from coming home from school, to eating dinner, to dressing up to visiting homes for trick-or-treating – then share it with your child. Or watch a video of how it all works. “There’s a lot of benefit in video modeling the activity for kids who respond well to seeing what peers do. This can be very helpful for some kids,” she says. If going out at night doesn’t feel right, explore trick-or-treating activities at local businesses or trunk-or-treat events at local schools or churches.
Find flexibility in costumes.
For some children, comfort tops the priority list for costumes. Once you have found a costume that works, have your child practice wearing it, and leave out elements, like masks or gloves, that cause discomfort. “Even dressing as one solid color may not feel like a costume, but why can’t your child experience Halloween as the color purple? People may wonder where your child’s costume is, but if your child is having fun, it doesn’t matter what they are wearing,” Theobald says. Follow your child’s interests when choosing a costume, and spend time looking online for possible themes. “The more you can involve your child, the better it will be, but if your child decides they don’t want to wear the costume, try not to stress about it. Focus on the most important thing, which is having fun with your child,” she says.
Let go of expectations.
Measuring the joy of Halloween on a scale of Instagram-worthiness is bound to bring disappointment, so try to keep an open mind about what Halloween can be for your child this year. “With holidays and big traditions, we picture what the Hallmark holiday might look like, but the important thing is what will be most fun for you and for your child,” Theobald says. “There is perfection in the imperfection, and the big, fancy things aren’t what kids remember. Instead, what they remember is the time you spent with them, and the things that cost little to no money to do.”
Recognize the value of routine, and know when to call it a night.
Routine is important to a lot of kids, so try to keep schedules as standard as possible. If your child’s routine is to have 30 minutes to relax after coming home from school, make sure they have this time before any celebrations begin on Halloween, too. Watch your child closely and look for any sign that they may need a break. “Most parents have an idea of their child’s limits. Take that into consideration and if you call it a night early, just ask yourself if everyone had fun,” Theobald says. “As long as you had fun that’s all that matters. Sometimes just getting that king-sized candy bar means you are done for the night.”
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