Halloween is tons of fun! Dressing up, trick-or-treating, and getting candy all add to the excitement. It can be tricky, though, for children with autism.
Halloween is special – it’s different from any other day! Children dress up, go door to door, and yell “Trick or Treat!” For some children, this may be too far from their regular, predictable routine. They might not know what we expect them to do, which can be stressful. On the other hand, they may know exactly what to do – so long as everyone does what they expect. Not everyone follows the same script on Halloween though. Some people give out toothbrushes instead of candy! This might confuse or upset some children.
It’s fun when children come to the door and yell “Trick or Treat!” Most people also like it when children say “Thank you,” and even chat a bit. Children don’t often stay long enough to have a good chat, but it’s still fun to exchange a few words. Some children have trouble communicating, though. Some speak like younger children. Others use a device to speak. Some don’t understand spoken language. Some can talk to people they know, but find talking to strangers stressful.
Halloween is a treat for the senses. There are lots of unusual sights, sounds, and sometimes even smells. Yet this isn’t always fun. Some children have trouble making sense of what they see, hear, smell, feel and taste. Costumes are sometimes itchy. Some children hate to wear masks. Others cannot tolerate makeup. It’s hard to find a costume that is not too hot or too cold. If that is not enough, the other children yelling “Trick or Treat” may be too loud. Some houses have loud, scary music or noises, as well.
Changes in routine, problems communicating, and sensory differences can all make Halloween tricky. If we plan ahead, we can make Halloween less of a trick and more of a treat for all children. Here are some tips that might help your child:
Help them know what to expect
Talk about what will happen on Halloween. Show your child what to expect using photos, pictures or even videos. Read books and do Haloween-themed activities. Relate Halloween to a favourite activity – if your child loves to colour, then give them Halloween colouring sheets. If they love cooking, make some Halloween treats together. If they’re fascinated by maps, look at the planned route for Halloween. You could even pick a costume related to something they’re passionate about.
Write about Halloween from your child’s perspective, and read it with them at least a few times. This lets the child rehearse what will happen, much as an athlete mentally rehearses before a big game. Try to use “I” sentences, and use language at your child’s level. Describe what will happen, when and where, who will be there, and how and why it will happen. Write about what your child should do, keeping the language positive. Describe how they might feel. Stories that are written in your child’s voice to help them figure out social situations are called social storiesTM (or personal stories). You can find out more about social stories from Carol Gray, who originally developed them, or from Autism Canada. Speech and Language Kids has a blog post describing how to create a social story for Halloween, with a sample story that you can modify for your child.
If your child has trouble communicating, practice what they will say on Halloween. If they can talk, practice yelling “Trick or treat” and saying “Hello” and “Thank you.” If they don’t speak, think about how they will communicate when they go door-to-door. Do you need to program some Halloween phrases into their communication device? Should they hand people a card that says “I can’t talk but I wanted to say ‘thank you'”? You can find business cards that explain ASD here. This can help children even if they usually can talk to people, since they may have trouble talking in such a novel situation!
Consider having a couple of practice runs before Halloween. Your child can dress up and go to one or two friends’ houses. This will help prepare your child. You might also find out more about what is tricky about trick-or-treating, so you can be better prepared for the real day.
Make Halloween simpler
Consider trick-or-treating at the mall. It is helpful for children who find bulky costumes uncomfortable. It also helps those who are afraid of the dark – let alone the witches and vampires out there!
Another possibility is going to a small number of houses. Ask friends to make it easier for your child – let them know about your child’s needs. If you are going to more houses, think about putting a note in mailboxes with your child’s photo and some helpful hints to make Halloween a joyful, fun time.
If your child is not ready to go door-to-door, you could trick-or-treat at home! Pretend each room is a different house. They can practice knocking on the door, saying “Trick or treat!” and being polite, but in the comfort of their own home with familiar people. (Thanks to Amy Lorraine Davidson for the home trick-or-treat suggestion!)
Another option for staying home is handing out treats to kids who come to the door. What a great opportunity to practice greetings, compliments, and sharing. That could be especially helpful for children who need predictability and control, or for those who have trouble going up and down all those steps. It’s something you can do together, too.
Let your child wear a costume that is comfortable for them. This may take some creativity! Some children do better with makeup, others with decorations stuck to their regular clothes.
Help your child stay safe
Make sure that your child knows how to be safe. Here are some Halloween safety tips adapted from Manitoba Public Insurance:
- Cross at stop signs or lights.
- Avoid crossing where there are parked cars.
- Look all ways for traffic before crossing the street.
- Wait for traffic to stop completely. Make sure drivers see you before crossing.
- Always walk across the street.
- Be extra careful when it’s wet or icy. Traffic cannot stop quickly.
- Make sure you can see and be seen. Wear a light-coloured costume. Avoid masks that make it hard to see.
Take lots of photos of your child having fun. Let them know what they did well, and remind them of the fun they had. That way, trick-or-treating will be even less tricky next year!
Happy Halloween from all of us at SpeechWorks Inc!
Stephanie Harvey, RSLP, MA, SLP (C)
Stephanie Harvey, RSLP, MA, SLP (C), is a Speech-Language Pathologist at SpeechWorks Inc. She runs Connect & Communicate groups to help children, teens and adults to develop social language skills, and provides individual speech and language assessment and treatment in English and French. Contact her today at 204-231-2165 to book an appointment.