By Janis D. Gioia, MAEd
Halloween is less than two weeks away, but for children with anxiety, autism spectrum or sensory processing disorders, Halloween is not really a treat.
Children with anxiety, autism or sensory processing disorders experience everyday things differently than other children.
Halloween is no exception.
For most kids Halloween is a pass to stay out late on a school night, hang out with friends, wear cool costumes, and eat way too much candy.
For an anxious child, Halloween is scary, unpredictable and uncomfortable.
Halloween involves darkness and scary images.
The holiday we know as Halloween, is based on an ancient Celtic harvest festival that involved people donning scary costumes to keep ghosts and demons away.
For children who struggle with anxiety, the darkness, scary costumes, talk of ghosts and demons and decorations that turn neighborhood homes into graveyards is downright terrifying.
Halloween involves costumes and make-up.
For children with autism and sensory processing disorders, putting on a costume with scratchy, itchy fabrics, or covering their faces with make-up or a mask is sensory overload.
Halloween disrupts school routines.
Children with autism, anxiety and sensory processing disorders struggle when routines are disrupted.
School parties change school schedules. Classrooms are more rowdy as children’s energy and excitement builds.
Halloween parties involve different sights, sounds, smells and activities than ordinary school days.
Parent helpers are in the classroom, but to an anxious child, there are strangers in a classroom they may struggle to feel calm in on “regular” school days.
The classroom is filled with decorations, skeletons may dangle from the ceiling, twinkling orange and black lights might be strung across the room.
The sweet smells of cider and doughnuts, and cupcakes and candy, fill the air: great for most children, but not those who have hypersomnia (a sensitivity to smells.
And then there are the games. Most kids love being blindfolded and asked to feel zombie eyeballs (peeled grapes) and mummy guts (cold spaghetti).
Not a problem for most children…but way to much sensory overload for a child with anxiety, sensory processing issues or autism.
Halloween equals chaos at home
Even if your anxious child isn’t trick-or-treating, the night is filled with chaos:
- Brothers and sisters are running around the house in their costumes.
- Parents rushing to help children get costumes on while attempting to prepare dinner and get Halloween candy ready for the onslaught of trick-or-treaters.
- Doorbells ringing.
A soothing bedtime routine probably isn’t going to happen.
And that’s stressful for your anxious, sensitive child.
Here’s How to Make Halloween Happier for Children with
Anxiety, Autism or Sensory Processing Disorder:
Talk about Halloween
Explain Halloween. You may think kids “know” that Halloween is just costumes and makeup, but some children can’t distinguish between fantasy and reality.
Ask them how the holiday makes them feel and what things they like and dislike.
Your acceptance and respect of your child’s fears gives them confidence to share their anxieties with you.
Saying, ‘Halloween is filled with many scary sights and sounds. Routines are different, things seem a little bit out of control. There isn’t anything for you to be afraid of, but I understand your fears and I am here to help you make a plan to enjoy Halloween.”
Try reading some fun and not-at-all scary Halloween classics like The Berenstain Bears Trick-or-Treat, Franklin’s Halloween or my daughter’s favorite The Littlest Pumpkin.
If your child is still resistant, consider writing a Halloween social story or comic strip with your child.
Developed by therapist Carol Gray to help children with autism develop social understanding, social stories allow you to write about an event that causes anxiety for your child.
Social stories are written from the child’s point of view, helping him navigate a challenging experience. Your child can illustrate the book with his artwork or use magazine cut-out or real photos.
I used social stories extensively in my teaching, and they really helped children with anxiety and autism spectrum disorders.
Here’s a sample social story for a child who is having Halloween anxiety at home:
It’s Halloween time. I see lots of decorations and costumes that scare me sometimes. I know the scary things I see aren’t real. They can’t hurt me. I am safe. When I feel scared I can ask for help. I can turn off a scary movie. I can plan a different activity to do on Halloween night. I can do things that relax me like using therapy dough or listening to a soothing story under my weighted blanket.
Design Your Child’s Happy Halloween.
Your child’s Happy Halloween may look nothing like the Walmart commercial you just saw on TV.
That’s okay. There are as many kinds of holiday celebrations as there are children.
(Keep that in mind as the holiday season approaches.) 🙂
Take your cues from what your child has told you and make plans accordingly.
(Halloween is very important to many adults, but get rid of your expectations to help your child feel calm and relaxed.)
- Let your child trick-or-treat without a costume or make-up if sensory issues are causing stress and anxiety.
- If certain houses have creepy lighting or decorative ghouls in the yard, skip that house, or plan to visit friends and neighbors who you know are only offering treats without any tricks.
- If the constant ringing of the doorbell gets your child anxious and upset, arrange for another parent or a babysitter to take her somewhere less chaotic that she enjoys.
- If your child is rule-based and struggles with flexibility, consider using a graphic schedule to help him manage the changes in times and routines the night will bring to your household.
Talk to your child’s teacher.
If your child is too overwhelmed by the class Halloween party, consider
- Having your child assist a “teacher” in the school who isn’t having a party. I taught in a resource classroom and often had children with anxiety, autism or sensory processing disorder as holiday helpers during assemblies and parties.
- Planning an alternate school activity like making a fall craft with an aide in the art room.
- Picking her up early to do another favorite fall activity like apple picking at a farm or coming home to make pumpkin bars.
- Using a visual schedule for children who struggle a disrupted class routine.
If your child decides to stay for the class party, consider writing a social story to help your child prepare.
Here’s a sample script:
Our class Halloween party is today. The schedule will be out of order, but I can handle changes. There might be different faces in the classroom, but they are parents helping us have a good time. I might smell a lot of sweet smells, and hear loud excited voices as the party begins. I might feel nervous energy in the air as everyone puts their costumes on and gets ready for a costume parade. If I feel overwhelmed, I can ask my teacher if I can take a break in my relaxation area. If I want to stay at the party but feel scared, I can hold a soothing stone or some therapy dough in my hand. I can ask for help whenever I need to. Things are going to be different today, but they will get back to normal soon.
Meet the Needs of Your Other Children
This can be the tricky part…managing the needs of your anxious child while still making the holiday happy and memorable for your non-anxious children.
Here are some ideas:
- Talk to your other children about the challenges their sibling faces. Ideally you have had open communication with them regarding your child’s disability.
- Decorate for the holiday with decorations that are fun, not scary.
- Consider having one parent take the non-anxious children out for trick-or-treat or arrange for them to go with other friends or neighbors.
- Adopt a family Halloween tradition your children plan with you, that they all enjoy…going on a hayride, visiting a pumpkin farm, making a special Halloween treat.
With a lot of understanding and a little bit of planning you can help your anxious child have a Halloween that is happy instead of harrowing.
How have you made Halloween less scary for an anxious child?
Have you creatively adapted your school’s Halloween festivities to be more inclusive of those with these disabilities?
Please share your ideas in the comment section below.