Navigating the Halloween Season with Autism

child holding pumpkin with halloween face

 

Halloween is a time of year where everything can look different and even a little (or a lot!) spooky. For some individuals with autism, this can make the day more anxiety provoking and stressful but, with some planning ahead of time, we can help our loved ones have a wonderful, spook-tacular Halloween

Preparing for Halloween

Sugar, costumes, scary movies, loud noises, and much more sugar! For some families, Halloween can be a lot of fun—or it can be a day out of the Addams Family! Halloween can always be difficult when your child has autism, but this year is certainly more unusual than past years. Below are resources and tips to guide you through this upcoming Halloween.

Child holding a leaf over her face
Image courtesy of Gabby Orcutt via Unsplash
 
  • COVID-19 & Halloween: Depending on where you live, you may be experiencing COVID-19 restrictions or simply prefer to celebrate in your homes. Find out what your town is doing ahead of time so that you can plan accordingly. Consider attending events that minimize social contact, such as drive up events. Piñatas are fun ways to turn Halloween into a game with candy as a prize. You can also create scavenger hunts, make Halloween crafts, play sensory games, and enjoy a night of scary movies at home—with lots of Halloween treats! 

  • Costumes: If your loved one demonstrates a preference for wearing a costume, allow them to pick their favorites. Purchase the costume ahead of time and allow your child to wear it for a period of time each day, if you think they might find the material or costume itself a little uncomfortable at first. Encourage your child to choose a costume that is comfortable and provide a lot of reinforcement for keeping it on appropriately.

  • Masks: As with costumes, it is always a great idea to practice wearing masks for longer periods of time before requiring our loved ones with autism to wear them for extended periods of time. Allow your child to choose their design and make sure the fabric is comfortable, breathable, and of course safe. 

  • Social stories, movies, books, and more! Prior to the holiday, consider reading social stories about Halloween outlining expectations of the day (you can find some Halloween social stories here), watching movies, reading spooky (and other) stories, listening to radio shows and podcasts, and watching YouTube clips. These will help your child get into the spirit of Halloween and prepare for the day’s events. If appropriate, I recommend stopping to check for understanding and to allow for questions. This can go a long way in alleviating one’s anxiety about the upcoming holiday.

3 children in halloween costumes

Image courtesy of Adam Winger via Unsplash

  • Planning activities: If you are hosting or attending a Halloween party, consider setting up a quiet room where children can go if they begin to seem overwhelmed by their surroundings. Set up activities that can be accessible for children with varying needs, such as larger targets for games like “Pin the Nose on the Pumpkin” and sensory friendly options such as fuzzy spiders. You might want to gradually decorate your home until your child becomes accustomed and, if attending an event, see the decorated house beforehand in person or through pictures. Share any dietary restrictions with the host and request this information beforehand for your guests. If you are going to a party, bring snacks and food your child can eat, including candy! 

  • Trick or treating—safety measures and dietary restrictions: If you are going trick or treating, take a picture of your child in their costume before leaving, designate a caregiver who is responsible for your loved one and make sure your loved one knows with whom they should be walking. Put reflective tape on your child’s clothing so that they will be easier to locate in the dark and do periodic check-ins to see how they are feeling. If your child has dietary needs, keep an eye out for houses that have a teal pumpkin and are participating in the Teal Pumpkin Project. These houses will have non-edible items for those who have food allergies. You might consider dropping off treats beforehand with specific notes to the homeowners, such as: “My child, Makayla, has specific dietary needs. She will be wearing [costume] and I will introduce myself. When we come, please give her this treat/toy. Thank you!” The Autism Community in Action also has free cards you can show to families that share more about your child’s needs, or you can check out their Halloween-specific cards.

  • Practice makes perfect! Practice trick-or-treating or any activities you have planned ahead of time, so that your child can be gradually introduced. This will help you to know their strengths and limits with the holiday fun, while providing them ample time to be successful with the activities. If possible, teach your child how to ask for a break, to exit a situation independently when they are overwhelmed or anxious. Provide lots of reinforcement, such as praise, high-fives, tickles, and anything else your loved one enjoys as they become comfortable. Each accomplishment deserves lots of love!

While we know this Halloween might be quite different, there continues to be many opportunities for fun, enjoyment, scares, and laughter. Be flexible and patient with yourself and your autism family. Celebrate each milestone, enjoy the sugar and spooks, and most importantly: Have a Very Happy Howl-loween!

 

 

 References

https://www.autismspeaks.org/blog/happy-halloween-making-holiday-fun-everyone

https://www.chla.org/blog/rn-remedies/halloween-tips-kids-autism-spectrum-disorders

https://tacanow.org/family-resources/trick-or-treat/

              

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Over the past 15 years, Noor Syed, PhD, BCBA-D, LBA/LBS has worked with individuals diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder and developmental disabilities from early intervention through adulthood in school and center-based settings as a teacher, therapist, consultant, and administrator. She is an Assistant Professor of Applied Behavior Analysis, Clinical Coordinator, and founding Director of the Center for Autism Inclusivity (Research, Education, and Services) with SUNY Empire State College. Dr. Syed is a certified general and special education teacher, birth through grade six, in New York State and is the Research Coordinator for the Global Autism Project, as well as a PhD Advisor in ABA with Endicott College. Dr. Syed completed her PhD with Teachers College, Columbia University. Dr. Syed has consulted for autism clinics around the world, including in Uganda, India, Romania, Antigua and Barbuda, and Indonesia, and currently serves as an international and school-based Ethics expert. She lives with her rescue dog and husband in beautiful Pennsylvania and loves spending her free time reading and being outdoors. She is also a big fan of chocolate! Dr. Syed welcomes your feedback and questions at noor.syed@esc.edu.