Halloween can be a scary time for all kids, but it can be an especially challenging time for kids with sensory processing difficulties. From the costumes and the masks, to the scary monsters lurking in haunted houses, to the unexpected surprise of someone yelling “Boo!”, there are a lot of potentially difficult issues when it comes to Halloween. But, with some planning and strategies, it can be a fun and enjoyable experience for all kids. Here are some tips that may help your little pumpkin enjoy Halloween:
• For a few weeks prior to Halloween, provide time for your child to practice wearing their Halloween costume. You might start with just one piece at a time, such as just a Minions mask or an Ana or Elsa wig. You can also try setting a timer so that every time your child wears the costume, they try it for longer and longer and build up their confidence and success over time.
• If your child has tactile processing difficulties, consider ways to modify a costume so that it will feel more comfortable for their body. You might consider changing fabric, or gluing necessary pieces to a preferred clothing item. One easy option is to sew or glue animal ears onto a sweatshirt and add a tail, gluing black felt jack-o-lantern pieces to an orange t-shirt, or cutting a hole in a sheet to be a ghost and wear it over your regular clothes.
• Have a back-up costume planned in case on the big night your child is not able to wear their original costume for the entire evening. This might be a past costume that they know is comfortable for them, or it might be one of the sensory-friendly ideas listed above.
TRICK OR TREATING:
• Find a few neighbors who are open to a dry run of trick or treating, where your child just practices knocking on the door, saying trick-or treat, and then thanking them for the treat. You might consider writing a simple social story for your child to help prepare them for what to expect on Halloween. Here is a sample one, but you can make your own for your child with their own picture in their costume!
• Spend a lot of time discussing with your child what is expected on Halloween. What kinds of things might they see (i.e. scary costumes, fake blood, monsters)? What kinds of things might they hear (i.e. spooky music, unexpected loud noises, people saying “Boo!)? By talking about what types of experiences they can expect on Halloween, your child will be better prepared to enter the day feeling confident.
• If your child isn’t quite ready to try going house to house for trick-or-treating, consider having them be the one to pass out candy to trick-or-treaters. They might feel more safe being in a comfortable and familiar place where they can take a break if necessary.
• Before Halloween, come up with some Halloween Tools that your child can add to their tool box full of coping skills to help them calm down if they are overstimulated or scared. You might practice deep breathing strategies, using your words to say “I feel scared,” asking for a break, getting a big hug from Mom or Dad and squeezing back to activate proprioception, or chewing gum or sucking on mints. Use the strategies you already know work well to help your child calm down. You can even make a “tool box” to carry with you in a backpack of some sensory tools to help them maintain that “just right” level of arousal.
• If darkness is scary for your child, consider starting earlier in the evening when it’s not pitch dark yet. They might also feel more confident if they have their own flashlight or lantern to hold.
• If your child is nervous about going to strangers’ homes, you can stick to relatives and close friends. Or, you may find that after a bit of practice with familiar people, your child is ready to try going to a few neighborhood houses. You can start out by helping them knock on the door, say “trick-or-treat,” and saying “thank you”, and then gradually decrease the help and cueing you give them so they are doing more and more of it on their own. Provide lots of positive reinforcement to show them you are proud of them for being so brave!
• Consider offering noise cancelling headphones if your child is sensitive to sounds. You can even incorporate these into their costume, such as making them an airplane pilot or taping bunny ears to the headphones!
• Your child might benefit from arriving early to a party so that there is less noise and stimulation.
• You might want to plan a back-up costume as described above in case your child feels overwhelmed.
• Discuss in advance the spooky things that they might see at a Halloween party, like spider webs, eyeballs made of peeled grapes, or scary costumes. Are these things real or pretend? By talking about these things before the child sees them, it will help them feel more prepared for the party.
• You might consider having a code word to use in case your child feels overwhelmed during of the party. That way if they say “purple pumpkin people,” you’ll know that they need a break, but they won’t have to be embarrassed in front of their friends.
• Plan a safe spot ahead of time where they can take a break if needed. Consider the bathroom, a quiet hallway, an unoccupied room, or even a brief trip to the car.
• Use your “toolbox” as mentioned above to help maintain that “just right” arousal level.
• Discuss expectations for candy ahead of time so it is not a surprise on Halloween night. Does a parent need to inspect all candy before they can eat any? Does the child get to pick 3 pieces to eat per day? Discussing these expectations will help prevent potential meltdowns, and these expectations can be included in your child’s social story.
• Encourage your child to eat the chewy candy for proprioceptive input; things like Twizzlers, Starbursts, Laffy Taffy, or Tootsie Rolls are all great heavy work for your mouth!
• If your child has food allergies, bring a bag of treats they can eat and after each house you can “trade” the candy they collected for the treats you brought for them. Then you can donate the “unwanted” candy to a buyback program through a local dentist who will send the candy to troops overseas (see www.halloweencandybuyback.com to find a participating dentist).
• Consider participating in the Teal Pumpkin Project for kids with food allergies or sensitivities to have non-food items offered as an option for all children.
On behalf of the staff at Leaps and Bounds, we wish you a Happy and Spooktacular Halloween!