Halloween is a relatively new phenomenon where I live. Every October for the past twenty years, Australian kids have been waging a desperate campaign to bring ghosts and goblins into the national consciousness (it doesn’t help that pumpkins are pretty scarce in spring).
Progress has been slow, so we’re still in that awkward phase where only the younger members of the neighbourhood understand what’s happening. The rest stand around looking on in amusement or confusion, wondering what the world is coming to and muttering about the end of days.
My kids have always been part of that eager young group of enthusiasts who look forward to the end of October. But like many celebrations, Halloween brings a lot of new experiences, sights, sounds and smells which can quickly become overwhelming.
Over the years, we’ve figured out lots of ways to make celebrations like this more accessible, so that everyone who wants to join in can participate and enjoy themselves. So here are some of the tips that have made events like Halloween more fun for our family.
A lot of costumes can be a sensory nightmare, especially if they have scratchy fabrics, tickly stuff like feathers, and strong or strange smells from plastic and paints. Masks and head pieces can also feel constrictive or confining, and some kids can find the sudden transition to new clothes stressful or otherwise feel uneasy with the idea of dressing up.
Costumes that fit over the top of regular clothes can be a more comfortable option, or wearing a t-shirt as the costume instead. Trying out the costume ahead of Halloween night can help kids get used to the change and new sensations.
Pumpkin carving is an activity with a lot of new and strong sensations which can be unpleasant or overwhelming for kids with hypersensitivities – slippery seeds, candle smoke, the pumpkin smell. Using battery powered tealights, cleaning the pumpkin out before carving or swapping it for fruits like apples or watermelons can give these kids a chance to join in without feeling overloaded.
Lots of kids find new experiences easier to handle when they know what to expect. Even if you’ve been trick or treating every year since they were born, it doesn’t hurt to prepare them by explaining what will happen. Try watching some Halloween movies together (preferably ones where it all goes well and nothing scary happens!), reading books, role play or making a social story to help explain what they can expect and what is expected of them.
Explain the Rules
When talking to your kids about a special event, there are often a lot of unwritten social rules or scenarios that we can forget to include. Trick or treating has a lot of them:
- When do you ring the bell?
- When do you say trick or treat?
- What do you do if nobody answers?
- How do you know which houses you can and can’t go to?
- What happens if they don’t offer a treat… do you have to do a trick?
- Is it okay to accept treats from strangers?
- What do you do with the treats that you get?
- When are they allowed to eat the treats?
- Do you go into the house or just wait at the door?
- Is it okay to visit houses and ring their bell on other days?
- How will they know when trick or treat is finished?
Visual supports can help with a lot of these things, especially the rules about when they can eat the treats (and how many).
Deal with Fears, Anxieties and Overload
For some kids, one of the most stressful parts of days like Halloween can be the lack of structure and change in daily routine. Having a plan and keeping the rest of the day as predictable as possible will help to reduce anxiety – eat dinner at the usual time, make a visual schedule of what you’ll be doing or a map of the houses that you’re going to visit.
There’s a lot of waiting and impulse control required when trick or treating – waiting for someone to answer the door, not eating the treats straight away – which can be a frustrating experience for some kids. There’s also the surprise factor which can create a lot of tension – will someone answer the door, will they offer a treat, what happens if they don’t. Some kids can find the ‘trick’ part especially stressful, and feel a lot of anxiety about what will happen if someone doesn’t offer them a treat.
These situations set the perfect stage for meltdowns, so keep an eye out for warning signs that your kids are finding it difficult to cope. Take regular sensory breaks and be ready to head home early if it’s too much to handle.
For kids who are fearful of the dark, having their own flashlight or glowsticks can make being outside at night a little less scary and intimidating. Alternatively, you can celebrate during the day by visiting a pumpkin patch or organizing daylight trick or treating with some friends.
All the excitement can make kids burn out quicker than they normally do, so keep an eye on how far you’ve walked (maybe arrange to have a car nearby for the drive home). Going at a different time to the bulk of the crowd is always a good idea. Even staying just ten minutes ahead of the pack will help you to avoid the overload but still enjoy all the costumes and atmosphere as you head home.
We talked about managing the kids’ expectations earlier, but don’t forget to relax your own expectations too! It doesn’t matter how much you’ve been looking forward to the night or how long it took you to make that costume, if your kids are feeling stressed then maybe for your family celebrating Halloween means not wearing a costume, or just visiting one house to trick or treat.
If going out to trick or treat is overwhelming or not practical, kids can still participate by staying at home to greet trick or treaters who visit your house. Let them have the job of opening the door and handing out treats – you can add one to their bag at the same time. If the sound of the doorbell is an issue, stand out on the porch or front yard instead.
And of course, it goes without saying that it’s not mandatory to celebrate Halloween, so if it’s not an enjoyable night for your family then don’t feel pressured to participate. If people coming to the door (especially in costumes) makes your kids tense, go out for the evening. If you do stay at home and don’t want people coming to the door or ringing your bell, feel free to post a sign to that effect on the door or at the end of your driveway.
This year my kids have decided they don’t want to do anything for Halloween, and that’s fine with me. Because inclusion is about finding ways to help people participate in a comfortable way… and that also means providing stress-free opportunities to opt out.
Photo by HibaHaba via Flickr.
About the Author
Bec Oakley is a special needs advocate, writer, blogger, and a parent of two boys with autism in Australia. Autism is part of what makes her and her kids who they are, so she’s passionate about helping people understand what it’s all about. Check out her excellent blog, Snagglebox.com.