Dressing up. Going door to door. Counting candy. There is no other holiday quite like Halloween. But for some, the spontaneity of the night can take a great deal of planning.
“Halloween can be particularly challenging for kids with autism because there is a lot going on,” explains Tiffany Neal, assistant director of the HANDS in Autism Interdisciplinary Training & Resource Center at the Indiana University School of Medicine in Indianapolis. “It’s a different atmosphere. People don’t look the same, and things we’ve taught, like reading social cues and facial expressions, can be more difficult.”
Planning ahead allows parents of children on the spectrum to help their kids handle the change in routine, sensory sensitivities and unusual social interactions that come with Halloween. Neal and local parents share their best tips for a fun-filled night:
Choose a costume
Try to pick a costume well ahead of Halloween. Experienced parents stress that selecting a comfortable outfit is key, especially for kids who are very sensitive to fabrics and temperature.
“We do costumes that can be designed around a soft hoodie and sweatpants for comfort and ease of wearing,” says Jenny Holcomb, a Zionsville mom of a 5-year-old son with autism.
Neal suggests using a visual choice board with pictures of three to five costumes to allow the child to make his or her own decision. It’s also a good idea to wear the costume a few times before heading out on Halloween night.
In the weeks before Halloween, experts suggest that parents use a social narrative to explain what will happen on that night, and then rehearse activities that may be challenging, such as knocking on doors and saying “trick or treat” without running inside.
“Our big hurdle was teaching a nonverbal ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) kiddo to be social enough to say ‘trick or treat’ and ‘thank you,’” recalls Tracy Mayer, an Indianapolis mom of a 13-year-old son with autism. “We used ASL (American Sign Language) and prompted him for the first ten houses or so. He caught on once he saw the candy!”
Visual supports, such as 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.
“We do a lot of prep about the different costumes we might see and why some people like to dress scary, but that they are just kids underneath,” says Kristen DiBella, a Westfield mom of a 5-year-old daughter with sensory processing disorder.
Make sure to take pictures while out trick-or-treating, so they can be used to visually prepare for Halloween next year.
Ultimately, the goal of the holiday is to have fun, so even if costumes are taken off and trick-or-treating doesn’t go as planned, be ready to adapt and follow the child’s lead, Neal says.
“You want the night to be fun for them. You don’t want to put them through something they won’t enjoy just for the sake of trick-or-treating,” she says. “Use the supports that they’re used to, bring those along wherever you go that night and just enjoy the holiday for what it is.”
HANDS in Autism has a list of Halloween tips online, including a printable social narrative at https://handsinautism.iupui.edu/pdf/HalloweenTipsSN.pdf
For more suggestions, visit The Autism Society of Indiana at www.autismsocietyofindiana.org/parent-parent-halloween-tips/ for helpful tips from other parents.