For many children, Halloween is a highly anticipated event. Children look forward to finding the right costume, attending Halloween parties at school, and trick-or-treating for hours. However, for a child with sensory processing challenges, Halloween can entail experiences filled with anxiety and distress, leading to melt-downs.
Itchy costumes, flashing lights, spooky sounds, unfamiliar homes, fog machines . . . the list goes on and on. The many details associated with Halloween can overwhelm children –those with sensory processing disorders and those without. Here are some strategies to help your child prepare for Halloween so that your child can enjoy the night navigating the many sensory experiences that Halloween brings.
- Start practicing early – Repetition is key in helping children with sensory processing challenges better understand and participate in holidays and events. A few weeks before Halloween, start talking with your child about trick-or-treating. Encourage your child to try on various costumes. He or she likely will develop a preference for one they feel most comfortable with. Practice trick-or treating at home or at relatives’ and friends’ homes so they know what to expect. Social stories or children’s books about Halloween may also be helpful.
- Find a comfortable costume – Try various costumes and let your child guide the decision for the costume they feel most comfortable in. Wearing a mask will likely be too uncomfortable for the child. The child could hold the mask or skip it all together. Many pre-made costumes are made of itchy material. Creating a costume out of materials you know your child is comfortable in may be just the trick you need to help your child feel at ease in a costume. Make sure the costume can be partially or fully removed should the child become uncomfortable while trick-or-treating. Let your child know there is nothing wrong with him/her should he or she be uncomfortable with wearing a costume. Never force your child to wear a costume. A seasonal shirt (skeleton, jack-o-lantern shirt, etc) or a handheld prop may be an easy alternative. If your child experiences challenges with loud noises, try to incorporate a costume that allows him or her to wear noise-cancelling headphones. Face paint/make-up may be a challenging tactile experience for your child. Practice ahead of time, and be aware that come Halloween night, your child may not tolerate the tactile experience of face make-up.
- The night of Halloween – Start trick-or-treating early before it gets dark. Start with homes your child is familiar with. Avoid large crowds. If your child is uncomfortable facing strangers, ask a sibling or friend to collect the treat for them. Do not pressure your child to participate. Remember, that quality of your child’s trick-or-treating experience is more important than the number of houses you visit. Watch your child’s cues and know when to call it a night before your child is overwhelmed and entering a melt-down.
If your child is uncomfortable with trick-or-treating, encourage him or her to stay at home and hand out the candy from the doorway.
- Enjoying Halloween Parties — Explain in advance what your child should expect, and if possible, practice party games ahead of time at home. Try to arrive early or at the start of the party before there is a large crowd. The beginning of the party should be less noisy and give the child an opportunity to explore the area. Help your child identify a “safe space” should he or she need to retreat to avoid a sensory overload. Pumpkin carving, face painting, and bobbing for apples can be a very challenging tactile experience for your child. Do not pressure your child to participate. Bring a comfort item or a familiar fidget should your child needing calming input. Realize your child may need to be one of the first children to depart (and that is okay) before the sensory experience becomes too intense.
- A few final thoughts – If your child is on a sensory diet, have your child complete their sensory diet activities before trick-or-treating and after they are finished, before they go to bed. Maintain their normal bed-time routine on Halloween. Contact your child’s school to inquire what Halloween activities they incorporate at school so you can prepare your child.
Remember, the quality of your child’s Halloween experience is utmost important, not the costume they choose nor the number of houses they make it to. Be flexible, and watch your child’s cues. You know your child best! We want your child to feel a sense of accomplishment regarding their participation in Halloween. Our goal is always to help your child grow. Here’s to a Happy Halloween!