Carved pumpkins, costumes, flashing lights, decorations, noises, lots of people, and knocking on stranger’s doors. This evening for a typical child can be confusing, scary, and unsettling; for a child with special needs it can be downright terrifying, uncomfortable or meltdown inducing.
Every child is unique and we need to be aware of what senses their body can tolerate, what they are hypersensitive to, and what they are able to do.
Here are some simple tricks to help with everything from costumes, to social interactions, to planning, to the day of options to help your little one and your family have an enjoyable and stay safe. But don’t forget to speak with your friendly Occupational Therapist (OT) for more personalized suggestions or helps to desensitize or prepare you and your child!
- Costume choices: Think about what things can cause undue distress for your child (is it sounds, textures, fit, colors, mobility, etc) and work to avoid those. Then, do your best to cater to their strengths. Does your child prefer to wear as little clothes as possible? Can you find a costume that would appropriately allow for this? Does your child enjoy soft pajama like textures? Did you know many stores (Target, Walmart, and many more) sell pajama costumes? Don’t be afraid to try something new or use it as a time to introduce something new, just plan to have a back-up costume. Don’t forget you can often times use their own clothes to make a costume.
Also, think of how you can incorporate tools that help your child (head phones, compression garments, sunglasses, etc) into their costume! J
- Costume “Practice”: Allow your child time to try on the costume at home. Let them get used to wearing it, moving in it, and seeing themselves in it. If your child requires devices or medical equipment make sure that they are able to utilize and access it with their costume.
- Trick or Treating: Knocking on random doors and interacting with new people is often times confusing and scary. These practices often contradict common rules or routines that the child has been taught. Help them to understand what this Halloween is. You can use social stories, books, movies, or other examples to help. Make sure that you always keep your child safe, attended to, and within sight to ensure safety. Practice this interaction with your child in full so they: know how to knock/ring a door bell (and what sound to expect), what to say (or if they have a communication device you can teach them or program it to say “trick or treat” for them), how to carry their bag, what they might expect (other people, random sounds, moving objects), and how to appropriately accept or take the candy/item.
- Route and Transportation: Plan your route ahead of time and if you can, walk the route with your child prior in the day time so they can see their surroundings. Also consider your child’s abilities and limits. Walking for some children can be quickly fatiguing so bringing a stroller or a wagon can be helpful, this also provides a place of comfort as well as some physical and visual containment to help decreased the input. A stroller or wagon is often a helpful option for children who run, dart or stray.
- Alternatives: Trick or treating is not for every child or every family. There are lots of fun alternatives if you still want to enjoy the holiday; hosting or attending a fall/Halloween party with a group of close friends or family, handing out candy at your house, going to a festival, or trunk or treating.
- Set them up for success: Use the day to help cater to your child’s strengths and preferences. If they seek tactile input, let them get in on carving the pumpkin or touching the “creepy” things. If they avoid messy play offer them paints/markers/stickers to decorate with. Help prep your child’s body, providing them with beneficial and helpful sensory information (or lack of) that helps regulate your child (deep pressure, quiet environments leading up, time alone, vestibular input, etc).
- Food Allergies or Sensitivities: Know that the “Teal Pumpkin Project” is out there, if you see a teal pumpkin on a porch the house will offer non-food options as “treats” for your child.
Last but not least, a few pure safety ideas: Often times when children are more overwhelmed and overstimulated they are more forgetful as well as more likely to “dart” or run. ID bands, bright or visible costumes, custom temporary tattoos (many places sell these now) or “DIY tattoo IDs” on the child can be helpful (you can write with pen on your child’s hand/arm and coat with clear nail polish or liquid Band-Aid to provide a single day use identification number/name/note).