Dressing up. Going door to door. Counting candy. There is no other holiday quite like Halloween, but for families of children on the autism spectrum, the spontaneity of the night can take a great deal of planning.
“Trick-or-treating can be stressful because you want them to participate, to have that experience, but you also know that it could be overwhelming on so many levels,” says Kim Herring-Anthony, an occupational therapist and owner of Indy Pediatric Occupational Therapy in Indianapolis. “It’s a tricky balancing act for parents.”
Here are some tips to help you start planning now for a successful Halloween night.
1. Focus on comfort when picking a costume.
Selecting a comfortable costume is key, especially for kids who are very sensitive to fabrics and temperature. Try to decide on a costume well before the big night. A visual choice board with pictures of three to five costumes can help your child have a voice in picking what they’ll wear. It’s also a good idea to practice wearing the costume before heading out on Halloween night. If a costume is too overwhelming, opt for a Halloween sweatshirt or other regular clothes instead.
2. Prepare with social narratives.
Visual supports — such as social stories, a countdown board and a trick-or-treating schedule of events — can help kids know what to expect that night. It’s also a good idea to talk about costumes, makeup and the difference between pretend and real, especially for children who are very literal. And make sure to take pictures while out trick-or-treating — they can be used to visually prepare for Halloween next year.
3. Practice ahead of time.
From now until Halloween, rehearse the parts of trick-or-treating that might be challenging for your child, such as walking up to a neighbor’s house, saying “trick-or-treat” without running inside, putting the treat in the bag and saying “thank you.” It’s also a good time to review and practice how to cross the street. For more support, ask your child’s therapists if there are ways they could work on trick-or-treating skills, too.
4. Stay close to home.
Before the big night, have an idea of where you’ll trick-or-treat and keep it manageable.
“A lot of our families will just trick-or-treat at family members’ houses or at the homes of close neighbors,” Herring-Anthony says. “That way, the kids see familiar faces, and they still get to be part of the activity that everyone is talking about.”
It’s also a good idea to start your evening early, well before it gets dark, and bring your own reinforcements with you to help the night along.
5. Be flexible!
Ultimately, the goal of the holiday is to have fun. Even if costumes are taken off and trick-or-treating doesn’t go as planned, adapt and follow your child’s lead. Maybe you end up just trick-or-treating around your house or yard, or have a family night in with Halloween games.
“A lot of kids 10 and older want to stay home and hand out candy instead,” Herring-Anthony says. “That way they don’t have to go trick-or-treating, but they can still be a part of Halloween night.”
Planning ahead gives parents and children a head start in handling the change in routine, sensory sensitivities and unusual social interactions that come with Halloween. There are many Halloween supports online, including tips from the HANDS in Autism Interdisciplinary Training & Resource Center at the Indiana University School of Medicine.
Welcoming Trick-or-Treaters with Autism
- Be patient. It might take children with autism longer to approach your house, pick a piece of candy and then leave afterward.
- Some children are nonverbal. Just because they don’t say “trick-or-treat” or “thank you,” that doesn’t mean they aren’t enjoying the experience!
- Some kids with autism are very sensitive to fabric and temperature, so they might only be wearing part of their costume by the time they come to your door.
- Consider having non-food treats for children with allergies or who are on special diets.