It’s pretty spooky how quickly Halloween snuck up this year! Halloween is typically a time of year to dress up, visit neighbors for trick-or-treating, carve pumpkins, and explore haunted houses. But while some kids love everything that the season brings, there is a lot that can be extra spooky for children with special needs. These Halloween activities often involve intense sensory experiences that may result in feelings of discomfort, anxiety, and emotional withdrawal.
No matter how your family usually celebrates, plans likely look different this year. After all, what hasn’t looked different in 2020?
Halloween through the Senses
Our sensory systems take in information from the world around us, then send that information to our brain. The brain then processes the sensory input and sends a response back out for the body to express. Sometimes the response is positive, such as a rush of happiness when you smell freshly-baked cookies.
Other times, the response may indicate discomfort or avoidance. Think: nails on a chalkboard.
Consider the night of Halloween….it is full of sensory stimulation:
The touch or feeling of a new costume, the gooey inside of a pumpkin while carving, other children brushing by during trick-or-treating
The sound of other kids on the street, scary music playing from houses
The sight of flickering lights or candles, glowsticks in the dark, brightly-colored costumes, masks covering people’s facial expressions
The smell of fire from candles in jack-o’-lanterns, carved pumpkins
Suggestions for a Happy Halloween
Preparation is key. Children (and most adults) tend to be afraid of new and unexpected situations. By letting kids know what to expect ahead of time, you can take a lot of fright out of Halloween night. Social stories are an excellent resource to walk children through various social situations, using a child-friendly perspective to offer support and advice. It may even be helpful to do a “trick-or-treating” test run by walking around your neighborhood block or practicing what to say when the door opens.
Modify a costume, as needed. Remember, Halloween should be fun for kids! If your child is having difficulty tolerating a specific piece of the costume, such as a mask or gloves, consider carrying the item alongside them as they go trick-or-treating. Familiar clothing or compression clothes may provide a comforting base layer to make wearing a costume more enjoyable, as well.
Practice wearing a costume leading up to Halloween. Children may have difficulty tolerating new textures as part of Halloween costumes, such as different fabrics than usual, a cape tied around the neck, or a mask covering their face. Repeated exposure to the costume in increasing durations may help prepare your child. Maybe consider starting with only 5 minutes of “dress up” time, then increase to 10, and so on. A visual timer (such as on an app) may help your child recognize when they can change out of the costume.
Use calming sensory strategies. Children may be comforted by blocking out spooky sensory input or by receiving regulatory proprioceptive input. Calming strategies may include:
Covering ears when there is a scary noise
Closing eyes or looking down at feet when there are too many people or lights around
Giving self a big hug, or getting a big hug from parents/caregivers
Marching to the next house
Taking a deep breath
Playing with a favorite fidget toy
Positive self-affirmations, such as I am okay, Mommy is right here
Incorporate alternative language tools. The term “trick or treat” reportedly first appeared in 1927 and has remained a major component of Halloween linguistics. However, your child may express language differently and that is perfectly okay! Encourage your child to use their preferred method of communication to greet others, such as with an AAC device, sign language, or by presenting a visual card in place of verbally stating trick or treat. You may take this opportunity to educate others on communication differences.
Have an exit plan. For some kids, the Halloween festivities might just be too much. Have an idea of how long you plan to stay out before returning home. It may be helpful to use a countdown, such as we will visit 3 houses and then go back to our house. If your child appears upset or uncomfortable, it is okay to end the night earlier than expected. You can use this year’s experiences to guide how you prepare for Halloween next year!
Alternative Ways to Celebrate
Understandably, many families are not ready to go door-to-door this year in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. But, that doesn’t have to stop you from celebrating the spooky season! Try out one of our alternative ideas to support fine motor skills, sensory processing, and language abilities:
Carve or paint pumpkins: Pumpkins are one of the most recognizable symbols of the Halloween season. Decorating pumpkins is a fun family activity and incorporates sequencing skills, as you have to decide on a design, map out the image, clean out the pumpkin, and carve! If touching the pumpkin “guts” introduces textures and smells that are too intense for your child, consider painting the exterior instead.
Create a sugary treat: Halloween is the ultimate treat day. Instead of trick-or-treating, you can concoct your own yummy confection. Have your child help pick out a recipe, shop for the ingredients, and be a part of the cooking process. Getting kids involved in the kitchen helps expose them to a variety of tactile, smell, and taste sensations.
Decorate the house: Find Halloween-themed arts & crafts projects to do and display around your home. Make “slime” by combining 2 parts cornstarch and 1 part water. Hide items in the slime to challenge your child’s tactile discrimination, or the ability to tell the difference between how different items feel.
Host a virtual party: If you’re not Zoomed-out yet, hop online with your friends and families for a socially-distanced celebration. You can still show off your costumes, collect candy, and share spooky ghost stories.
Have a movie night: Choose a favorite Halloween movie, grab some popcorn and candy, turn the lights down, and enjoy! All the fun of Halloween straight from your living room.
Create a candy hunt: Hide fun-size candies around the house and encourage your children to find them! If they need a hint, they can ask for one by saying “Hint or treat?”