Halloween has long been a favorite holiday for kids. But, for those with developmental or sensory challenges, the costumes, crowds, loud noises, bright lights, and unexpected or scary elements can be overwhelming. We asked our therapists for tips about how parents can help kids with these challenges enjoy the holiday without shutting down or melting down. The good news is that with some planning, all kids (and their parents!) can enjoy Halloween.
Routines are important for kids, especially those with developmental or sensory challenges. By sticking as much as you can to routines like school, mealtimes, and bedtimes, you set your child up for feeling safe, confident, and successful at navigating the holiday. For activities outside of the normal routine, you can prepare your child by practicing ahead of time.
Costumes can be tricky for kids with sensory challenges. Bring your child costume shopping and let him feel the different fabrics and textures to see what he’s comfortable with. Or, consider using clothing he already has to create a costume. Let him wear his costume a few times so he can stand, sit, and walk around in it. Buy a comfortable Halloween-themed t-shirt and bring it to activities in case his costume becomes uncomfortable.
Help your child understand what to expect by reading books about Halloween or looking at pictures. Talk about the different things she might see and how those things might make her feel. Use a social story to tell her what will happen, step by step. For example, you could say: “When you wake up, we will put on your costume for school instead of regular clothes! Right after lunch, instead of going back to your classroom, there will be a parade and you will walk through the halls with your friends,” etc. Do the same for party plans, trick-or-treating, and any other activities.
Loud Noises, Bright Lights & Scary Things
In addition to books, pictures, and stories, help your child understand what to expect by bringing him to the Halloween section of a store for a practice run. This way he can, at his own pace, explore decorations and other Halloween items that make noise, flash lights, or are scary.
Halloween is a social holiday. For kids who struggle with language and social interaction, you can practice how to behave in different situations. For example, practice what to say when someone asks about or compliments her costume. For trick-or-treating, you can practice saying: Trick-or-Treat! Thank You! and Happy Halloween!
Plan Ahead for Possible Bumps in the Road
Although preparing kids for what to expect should set the stage for a smooth Halloween, bumps in the road can happen.
Address possible bumps in the road at school by talking to teachers to ensure that a plan is place if your child becomes overwhelmed by Halloween activities at school. Share cues for recognizing if he is beginning to shut down or melt down, and decide on a quiet place he can go to regroup. If you have a costume alternative (that Halloween t-shirt, for example), give it to a teacher in case the costume becomes too much and your child wants to change.
Trick-or-Treating and other Activities
Keep things manageable by arriving to and leaving from Halloween festivities early to minimize stress related to crowds and lots of activity. This will also help you maintain your child’s regular bedtime and avoid a meltdown from being overtired.
For kids who need a lot of sensory input, you can have them do something physical before you start trick-or-treating, like jumping on a trampoline, carrying something heavy (pumpkins!), or pulling a wagon. While you’re out, have your child do something like push up against a tree if she needs sensory input.
Work with your child to come up with a plan if things become too loud, bright, or scary. For example: “If something feels too spooky, let’s hold hands or walk away together.”
Take earplugs for kids who have a hard time with too much noise.
You can even consider modifying trick-or-treating so that you’re going to only a few houses of people you know, or even set up trick-or-treating at home! For example, you can invite a few friends or family members over and have them go into different rooms, then have your child knock on each door to receive a treat.
We hope that these suggestions will help you have a smooth and fun holiday. If you have additional tips that we didn’t cover, please share them in the comments.