Halloween is a holiday full of fun and spooky surprises, but those surprises can be genuinely scary for many children with autism spectrum disorders and related disabilities. There can be crowds, masks, and a big shake up to the daily routine. However, with some planning and outside resources, Halloween is back on for children on the spectrum and better than ever with increased skill building, safety, and fun.
Plan for Skill Building
Halloween is an excellent chance to generalize the skills your child is building at school and in treatment. Children get to complete the multi-step routine of Halloween events like trick-or-treating, engaging socially, and waiting their turn. They may be expected to respond to questions or tolerate potentially startling or scary things, such as loud noises, large crowds, people in masks, creepy costumes, and flashing or colored lights. Practice the routine by “playing Halloween” and running through the steps earlier in the week or having a “dress rehearsal” to try on costumes and walking through the neighborhood to troubleshoot any potential issues with costumes or scary decorations. Preparing with Halloween themed books and videos can help expose your child to any unexpected parts of the night. The time spent running through the routine of trick or treating and exposing them to Halloween themes will develop skills and encourage success when the 31st hits. Here are some tips and resources to consider to build skills:
- Prepare your child to communicate “Trick or Treat”, whether through teaching vocal language, giving a card with Trick or a Treat written on it, or adding the command to an electronic communication device. Run through the routine several times to make sure your child has it down, and offer lots of praise when he or she responds without any adult prompts. If your child is handing out candy at home, prep him or her to communicate, “Happy Halloween,” and to offer candy to trick or treaters.
- Consider preparing your child to answer routine questions her or she may be asked during trick or treating, such as variations of “what are you?” or questions about where they’ve been and what candy they’ve gotten. For example, this song introduces the concept of being asked who you are.
- Books and videos can introduce your child to the themes of Halloween that may be scary or confusing, such as masks, loud sounds, or scary costumes. Consider hitting your local library for spooky fall books, searching for Halloween videos on Kids YouTube, or new Halloween play activities and crafts. Click on these links for a list of book, social stories (or here’s info on how to create your own), and learning activities.
Plan for Safety
Road safety. It is important to maximize road safety as you and your family enjoy Halloween.
- The National Safety Council has tips to help keep all your children safe during the fun.
- In particular, keep an eye out for cars and choose activities according to your child’s ability to consistently walk next to you on a sidewalk. A wagon, holding hands, a rope to hold for several children, a buddy system, lights and reflections on costumes, and indoor activities are all options to consider for safety.
Emergency preparation. According to a 2018 study in Pediatrics, children on the spectrum wander at a higher rate than children without an autism diagnosis and large crowds can be a triggering event for some. Safety and emergency preparedness programs are a particular focus of many consultants at KGH Autism Services, so you’re also encouraged to reach out to your child’s team for specially targeted safety strategies. Here are some resources.
- The National Autism Society and Autism Speaks both have toolkits of resources on wandering prevention and response.
- The NAS’s caregiver checklist is full of vital tips and can be a jumping board for conversations with your team and family. Your strategy may include in the moment strategies, such as “bookending,” where an adult walks on either side of the child and clear scheduling and communication about which adult is responsible for closely supervising each child. It may involving also preparing strategies, such as arranging for ID bracelets, GPS trackers (Project Lifesaver has resources for getting one), children’s emergency cell phones, and alerting first responders.
- The Council on Developmental Disabilities has a list of emergency preparedness products and applications as well.
Food allergies and sensitivities
Many children have restricted diets because of food allergies and sensitivities or because of strong food preferences.
- Those going traditional Trick-or-Treating can be served by The Teal Pumpkin Project. Those with teal pumpkins have non-food treats available.
- You can also carry your own bag or basket full of safe foods or non-food treats and try asking neighbors to offer it to your child while they trick or treat.
- Thinking of friendly or understanding neighbors and mentioning the plan before hand might make this process less stressful as well.
Plan for FUN
Remember that Halloween is about FUN. Be creative and think about sprinkling in fun to each step of the day.
- Plan for fun ends to reward and encourage success during any tough transitions, such as waiting to eat the best treats until after the long car ride home or not using up all that day’s screen time so children have a chance to watch Halloween videos with their friends while they wait in line.
It is also allowed to be fun for YOU.
- Holidays can up the pressure to have Pinterest perfect costumes or even just too long events. The day doesn’t have to be fancy or perfect to be a great memory.
- Plan in breaks, pack snacks and water, and pace yourself too.
- The City of Madison and Chicago has Halloween activities to supplement or replace trick-or-treating- look into what’s available in your community to find what’s most fun for your family.
- Seek out the support of friends, family, and your therapy team if you have any questions or concerns and have skill building, safe, and FUN Halloween!
*This information is provided for informational and educational purposes only and should not be used to replace consultation with your doctor or qualified health professional.