Halloween is an enjoyable holiday for many families. This is a holiday that involves fun times, hanging out with family and friends, celebrations, getting treats, and visiting places in the community, along with many other exciting activities. When considering these things as well as the expectation of socializing, changing up the normal daily routine, and the potential of not managing one’s basic needs like getting good sleep and nutrition, the holiday of Halloween can be a bit stressful and overwhelming for children with autism spectrum disorder or ASD. Other factors that might make Halloween unpleasant for children with autism include loud noises, new sights, excessive sensory stimulation, scratchy costumes, unfamiliar people, not understanding the nature of what is happening when people dress up and being out at night.
Making Halloween More Enjoyable for Kids with ASD
Helping a child with autism be more familiar with Halloween and to know what to expect as well as taking some proactive strategies and planning to address their basic needs, their sensory preferences, and incorporating some of their personal interests into the day can make Halloween a much more enjoyable event for them. It can also make it more enjoyable for the family.
1. Use a Calendar
One way to help a child be more familiar with the holiday of Halloween is to explain the day that it occurs and show them ahead of time on a calendar when the holiday will happen. Give them ample warning about the upcoming event and then reminding them occasionally how much longer it will be before Halloween happens. This can help children feel more prepared and thus get less overwhelmed when the day occurs.
2. Create a Personalized Story
Additionally, parents can make a story that is personalized to the child. You can do this in any format that you prefer - using paper and pencil or complete the project digitally. Also, try getting realistic photos and pasting them in a booklet format.
In this story, you can explain the relevance of Halloween and what it will likely look like for your child as well as including potential stressors and how your child might cope with them. Include tips and strategies that make sense for your child on how they can have a fun and enjoyable Halloween.
When helping your child have a better experience with Halloween, consider what your typical or ideal family traditions look like. What activities do you typically like to participate on and around Halloween? If you haven't been able to participate in your ideal activities, what would they look like if it were possible to participate in them with your child?
For instance, do you carve pumpkins with your children or do you go to parties with them? You can do things that will help your child be more comfortable with these activities. For instance, you can use the concept of pairing which is the behavioral concept that has to do with associating your child's preferred things with another item or activity.
Pumpkin Carving/Decorating Tips
Let’s consider an example. If parents would like their children to participate in pumpkin decorating, incorporate preferred stimuli or the things they like into the activity. Consider their sensory preferences, as well.
If they find carving and taking out the inside of a pumpkin uncomfortable, this is likely not a necessary activity for them to do. However, to still include them in the family activity, you may consider getting stickers of their favorite character. For a child who loves superheroes, you could get superhero stickers and have your child place them on their pumpkin while your other children carve or decorate their pumpkin in the way they prefer.
4. Consider and Address Basic Needs
Although many kids may be able to still behave acceptably even with one night of staying up late or a day of eating unhealthy foods like sweets and candy, children with autism may be more sensitive to changes in these areas. Therefore, it can be helpful to make sure your child gets a good night's rest the night before Halloween and they get a nap if they need one on the day of Halloween. It could also be helpful not to expect them to stay up too late past their typical bedtime on Halloween night. Also, be sure to take care of their nutritional needs as you typically would.
5. Creating a Reward System to Offer Positive Reinforcement
Parents might also consider implementing a reward system of some sort for their child on the spectrum. This uses the concept of positive reinforcement to encourage appropriate behaviors. Of course, it's your own decision as a parent what you would like to see your child engage in on the day of Halloween as well as throughout the season during any other Halloween-related activities. For instance, some parents would like their child to at least go trick or treating with the family for a short period of time whereas other parents are okay with their child not participating in this activity at all.
Incorporating a reward system for good behavior at school can also help encourage children during Halloween and other holidays. For instance, if your child attends a school and the school has a holiday Halloween party, you could give your child a reward of a preferred item or activity by having them earn tokens or points or just giving them the reward at the end of the day. This all depends on your child's needs, abilities, and your parenting preferences. Parents could also try to reward them for attending school that day even if their children don't fully participate in the Halloween activities or for not engaging in disruptive or aggressive behaviors towards other kids.
6. Recognizing Your Child’s Emotions
It is important to be aware of your child's emotions on the day of Halloween as well as the days around this holiday. Since there are many Halloween items and activities that can be a bit spooky, it's important to consider your child's comfort level with these types of things. You may want to have a conversation with them about this and let them know that these types of things might be present in the community such as in people's yards for decorations, at parties at school, and so on. Remind them that it is just pretend.
For Children Needing Receptive Language Supports
For children who have limited receptive language skills or those who don't or may not understand these types of conversations, you can help make them more comfortable with the things they may encounter during Halloween by helping them identify a picture of the items or even identifying the actual items out of context. This activity helps them to at least have some exposure to the stimuli before and during the Halloween season.
For instance, you could have a set of holiday flashcards and show them what a few things are that they will encounter around Halloween such as a bat, ghost, pumpkin, people in costumes, and so on. This helps them normalize the things they might see around Halloween which they might not see other times of the year.
7. Considering Noise Sensory Input & Using Headphones
If your child doesn't like loud or certain noises, or if they can get uncomfortable or stressed in groups of people, it may be a good idea to allow them to wear either noise-reducing headphones or earbuds that play music so they can still participate in activities but be less overwhelmed by the noise around them. This, as always, will be a parenting choice that is up to you as some kids may use headphones or earbuds that play music too excessively in their everyday lives.
The use of headphones may not be beneficial for social and communication development or for the relationships kids have with others since it interferes with listening and communication abilities. However, on a day like Halloween, it may be an acceptable means of coping with the excessive noise stimulation coming from their environment. It can be a balancing act of allowing the use of headphones and encouraging social and communication experiences.
8. Allowing Personal Choice with Costumes
When it comes to dressing up in a costume for Halloween, it's okay to allow your child to not dress up if that's what they would prefer. This is nothing to feel bad about as a parent. Also, allowing your child to choose their costume if they do want to dress up is perfectly fine even if it's as simple as picking their favorite shirt out of their dresser with a character on it or putting on a baseball cap and calling themselves a ballplayer.
Supporting Children with Autism Through Halloween
Kids with autism spectrum disorder can enjoy Halloween as much as anyone else. It’s important to consider their personal preferences, sensory experiences, and individual needs and abilities when supporting them throughout the Halloween season. It’s okay to encourage them to participate in some activities but be sure to consider their needs and their wishes for the holiday, as well.
The most important thing is being there for your child and having fun with them, even if it’s not the same way that others celebrate the holiday. We hope you and your family have a safe and fun Halloween!