This post was originally published on October 4, 2016.
Halloween is a fun holiday to celebrate for both children and adults, and there are plenty of ways to help children on the spectrum enjoy this time of year. Some children may find it exciting to dress up and participate in spooky-themed activities while others are frightened by the new sights, sounds, smells, and feelings of this holiday. This article offers some ideas for planning an autism-friendly Halloween to help your autistic child or family member fully appreciate this fun holiday.
Autism-Friendly Halloween Costumes
Some children on the spectrum have tactile sensitivities that are aggravated by many Halloween costume designs or materials. How they feel will always be more important than how cute or innovative they look. Try starting a costume with plain, comfortable clothing (such as sweatshirts or sweatpants) and then dressing it up with some accessories. If children have a costume they really like, but parents are skeptical how they will feel after wearing it a while, they can practice wearing the costume in advance and try to address any costume-related issues well before trick-or-treating.
Finally, let your child be creative. Don’t force them to wear anything they don’t want to for appearances. You might want to consider if the costume can be adjusted/modified if there is a problem. This worked out unintentionally for our family a few years ago. My son was determined to be an orange and black caterpillar for Halloween. He talked about it for a few months in advance, and I began working on making a simple costume. I found a black sweatshirt and sweatpants and used orange duct tape for the stripes. I used a headband over a black snow cap to attach the antennae. He loved it until a few days before Halloween when he decided he wanted to be the planet Jupiter.
So I got rid of the antennae and added a hula hoop with shoulder straps and paper moons hanging from it. This started out fine on Halloween, but he tired out quickly and needed to be pushed in a stroller. We ditched the hula hoop so he could sit down, added the antennae, and he turned back into a caterpillar after a few houses.
But the headband kept falling off, so a little while later we got rid of that too. At the next house we went to, the man passing out treats looked at his black and orange striped outfit with ski hat and said “What do we have here? An escaped convict?” So we just said “Sure,” and he was a convict for the rest of the evening. He didn’t care, he just wanted the treats. It really didn’t matter how others perceived him as long as he was comfortable and enjoying himself.
Prepare Your Child for the Festivities
Try to anticipate potential stressors that your child may encounter and prepare them ahead of time with a discussion or social story. If you are attending any Halloween parties, it may be helpful to prepare for crowds or turn taking during special games. If you are trick-or-treating with your child, practice ahead of time to master the etiquette (saying “Trick or Treat,” only choosing one item unless given permission for more, saying “Thank you,” etc.).
If you think your child may have difficulty with this routine, plan for an alternate procedure. For example, perhaps you might want to hold the candy your child selects if you think they will have the immediate impulse to grab and eat. It also might be important to explain that all of the costumes aren’t real and that there are people hiding behind each one.
Consider Trick-or-Treating Alternatives
Trick-or-treating can sometimes be stressful and unenjoyable. But children can still have fun on Halloween without participating in trick-or-treating. Here are some autism-friendly Halloween ideas:
- Host a party at your home with Halloween-themed activities you know your child will safely enjoy.
- Look for a trunk-or-treat event at a school or church. These events are typically shorter and simpler than traditional house-to-house trick-or-treating.
- Stay at home and have your child dress up and pass out candy or other items to trick-or-treaters.
Create an Autism-Friendly Halloween by Preparing Your Neighbors
You can also help your child have a successful Halloween by preparing your neighbors for your arrival. Consider selecting a handful of houses and offering them specific items (either candy or candy alternatives) you know your child will like. You can also give them tips for reducing your child’s anxiety or any information they might need to make the experience fun for your child.
Once you have learned by trial and error which Halloween routines work best for your children, communicate this with your family, friends, and community so more people are aware of the needs of our autistic children and can then work to create a more inclusive environment with an autism-friendly Halloween and other future events.