10 Tips for a Fright-Free, Fun Halloween for Kids on the Autism Spectrum
October 08, 2021
October 08, 2021
Shrieking skeletons, spooky music, freaky masks, flashing lights, smoke machines, itchy polyester costumes and what appears to be the underworld lurking in the night- ‘This is Halloween.’ While tons of fun for many, the sensory overload of Halloween can make The Nightmare Before Christmas a reality for children with autism spectrum disorder. It can leave their parents frantic too, of course, but with some careful planning, you and your child can enjoy the tricks and treats of Halloween.
Whether attending Halloween events, trick-or-treating, handing out candy at home or even just noticing all the seasonal changes in the neighborhood and stores during the month of October, prepare your kiddo now. In addition to giving them the opportunity to take part in something everyone else is talking about, you want them to be prepared to handle the change in routine and any sensory sensitivities that arise.
At Hopebridge, we have experience navigating the holidays with our kiddos and hosting our own autism-friendly Halloween parties, so we pooled our team to share our top 10 tips for a happy Halloween season for your family.
1. Talk to them about Halloween.
First and foremost, talk to them! This includes not only how your family will celebrate, but how others might do so throughout the month. Costumes, decorations, parties, treats and more. There will be new – and often scary – noises and sights of which to prepare them. Costumes can confuse some children who may not understand the difference between reality and make-believe. Support materials like social stories, YouTube videos of other kids trick-or-treating (that you preview first!), and a calendar (if applicable) to count down can help the ongoing discussions leading up to the big days. Your child’s therapist is likely open to working on this as well, if you discuss your goals with him or her in advance.
2. Plan on staying close to home.
Whether you’re visiting a pumpkin patch, attending a trunk-or-treat, or trick-or-treating, think through the location in advance and plan to keep confined to somewhere familiar, near your house or family members’. If trick-or-treating, it’s a good idea to walk the route on your own before the big day – are there certain homes that have a ton of scary lawn ornaments, special effects or noise? If so, consider steering clear of those and altering your path.
3. Create a visual schedule and/or map.
A visual schedule is a helpful tool, both in preparation and the day of the event. Plan to start early before dark and give it a limit that works for your child, which might be five houses or up to an hour. Remember – baby steps! It’s probably not the best idea to test out the haunted house on your first run, so go ahead and leave that off the agenda.
4. Focus on comfort in costumes.
Costumes choices for kids with autism are tricky, especially for those who are sensitive to fabrics and temperature. Involve your child in the process! We suggest making a visual board with a few choices in their interests – characters, athletes, animals, trains or something like an “elevator technician” if what gets them excited is a little outside the normal range of costumes. Etsy, Amazon and some incredible small businesses are great resources to find simple versions of these costumes, such as a Chewbacca or Prince Charming t-shirt, or soft cotton iterations of many favorite princess dresses. There are also tons of resources on Pinterest for kiddos who may prefer to have a costume made from clothing and household items they already own. If your child is comfortable with it, consider adding some glow necklaces and/or a flashlight to the costume. Have a backup, too – a Halloween-themed shirt or even regular clothes in case they are not as into it the day of the event. Still uncertain about what’s best for your kiddo? Here are six autism-friendly costume ideas.
5. Host a dress rehearsal.
In addition to talking to your kids in advance, rehearse. Suggest they wear the costume around the house a bit to get used to it and so you can see if there are any ‘flaws’ in the design you can fix to alleviate the discomfort (this is great advice for younger kids even if they are not on the spectrum!). You can also talk to a couple of your neighbors or family members to role play in advance. The practice of walking to a neighbor’s house without going inside – only for the purpose of Halloween – is important. It also gives the opportunity to practice saying “trick or treat” and “thank you,” taking one or two pieces, crossing the street after looking both ways and more. This practice run can also serve as the “big day” for kids who may be a little hesitant.
6. Seek out sensory-friendly events.
Check your community calendars for ‘not-so-scary’ or autism-friendly events in your area. Most of these are daytime parties with children’s activities and limited music, sounds and scares. Some areas offer farm visits and drive-through events, which might prove to be more fun for your kiddo. They are a great way to introduce your child to the idea of wearing a costume or Halloween decor as a precursor to trick-or-treating.
7. Decide on treats.
If your child has a restricted diet or you’re worried about too much sugar intake, plan how you’d like to handle sweets in advance. Then, communicate with your child so there aren’t any surprises. For example, how much is he or she allowed to eat at a time? Is there anything unacceptable? If so, have some approved treats on hand that you can switch out. If sugar is a no-go entirely, consider bringing some small toys or approved treats to the event or your neighbors’ house before the big day and ask if they can instead offer those to your child when he or she arrives.
8. Buddy up.
If you have other children who are not on the spectrum, they can join in to help your kiddo prepare for the big day and guide them through trick-or-treating. Siblings, cousins and other close friends can be especially helpful for those who are known to elope. Siblings may not want to stick to the same agenda the entire evening, so consider arranging a Halloween trick-or-treating “date” or party with their friends before or after the outing in order to maximize their fun as well.
9. Find support materials.
For children who are nonverbal or may just have a tough time expressing themselves to strangers, teaching them to say “trick-or-treat” and “thank you” may not be an option. Autism Speaks offers a handy downloadable sign you can bring with you to make others aware of the challenge and that the candy is still appreciated! This sentiment is also shared on a number of cute autism-focused Halloween bags available to purchase on Etsy, should you choose to go that route.
10. Keep an open mind.
Don’t force something just because it’s what everyone else is doing. Be flexible and prepared to adjust. Maybe walk up and down the street but don’t go door to door this year. Or even stay home and have your own Halloween “party,” with movies, treats and a Halloween egg hunt, or hand out candy to other kids instead. Having fun is most important. It may take time – even years – but think about it as working towards your child’s future of fun the next couple of years.
Above all, it’s best to plan with intent, but let go of any expectations for Halloween, especially for the first time around.
So, now that you’ve heard our tips, do you have any we’re missing? What’s worked for you in the past? We want to know! Please share with us and other families on our Hopebridge Facebook page or by tagging us on Instagram, TikTok or Twitter.