Strobe lights, masks, excessive doorbell ringing: It’s all part of the annual Halloween festivities. But elements like these can be off-putting to children with sensory challenges and autism spectrum disorders, as can the other not-so-routine shenanigans of Halloween. So, with suggestions from the The American Occupational Therapy Association, Inc. and the Autism Society, we’ve come up with a few pointers for making this holiday a safe and fun experience for your child—or princess or superhero or cowboy.
Revisit Halloween traditions
Kids with sensory challenges and autism spectrum disorders take comfort in routine, and Halloween is all about the unexpected. Practice with your child beforehand so that the big day doesn’t feel like a big deal. Read stories to your children about Halloween to familiarize them with the traditions involved.
Create a social narrative to outline the evening, and role-play every step in the process. Decorate your home with subtle Halloween décor, such as pumpkins, a few cobwebs here and there, and orange and black string lights across the front porch.
If your neighbors are willing to pitch in, take the practice sessions to the streets. Let your child dress in costume and trick-or-treat at a few friendly houses in advance of Halloween. Practice saying “Trick or treat!” and “Thank you.” This would also be a good time to remind your child of the rules about crossing the street safely and when it’s OK to eat his treats.
Don’t forget to practice answering the door, too. Your child may feel more comfortable handing out candy than receiving it, so train your little helper to respond properly when that doorbell rings.
Make a visual schedule
Break out your agenda planner and map out any Halloween happenings you’ll be participating in—and be sure your child understands the agenda. If you’re attending a party, ask for a list of scheduled activities (plus you may need to brainstorm alternative activities to better suit your child’s strengths).
Or throw your own party with a limited guest list and flexible ending time so that your child can socialize without pressure—again, read him in on the plan first, and keep the schedule posted.
Select the right costume
Putting a costume together—if your child does not want to wear something elaborate, suggest a simpler, more imaginative costume (for example, an orange shirt might suffice for a pumpkin). Who knows? This could be the most creative costume you’ve made yet. Then, make sure that your child is comfortable walking, bending and sitting in his chosen costume and that the material does not pose any annoyances.
Don’t forget that in North Texas, the weather on Halloween can range from balmy to blizzard (well, nearly), so practice parading with a coat on just in case. If your child decides costumes are no-go, don’t fight him—he’ll still look adorable in your photos, we promise.
Make it comfortable
Choose your trick-or-treating route wisely: Avoid all houses with obnoxious décor (like the aforementioned strobe lights) and opt for quiet streets instead. For maximum comfort, trick-or-treat only at familiar homes. If your child is ready to head home after just a few stops, so be it; he might just prefer doling out candy from the safety of his foyer.
And, if your child has a favorite go-to item that makes him feel secure, such as a blanket or stuffed animal, bring it along during your trick-or-treating adventure—it may help calm the nerves of being outside at night or running into those loud and bright, outdoor Halloween decorations.
Play to their strengths
Throughout the process, play to your child’s strengths, and be aware of his limits. Plan activities that will interest your child. If he will be uncomfortable with some of the Halloween party staples (such as bobbing for apples), think of other ways he can get involved (such as sorting or counting the apples). The goal is to find ways to include your child in the festivities, not to pile up a list of restrictions.
And as much as you’ve planned and prepped, when it comes down to October 31, you’ve got to be flexible. Watch for signs of sensory overload or fatigue in your child—don’t overdo it. You don’t want the fun to turn into a source of stress. At the end of the day, remember: There’s no place like home.
This article was originally published in 2013.