Tip 1 – Expose your child to Halloween, no matter how early it is or how young he or she is.
Getting an early start to Halloween is the key to ensuring you have a successful holiday. Repetition is vital to help your child understand Halloween, as is the case for most special needs children. It’s ok to pull the Halloween stuff out in early September to begin the learning process and give them more time to adjust to the holiday as well. Ensuring your child understands what Halloween is all about is the goal here, so do whatever it takes to start off on the right foot by gaining as much exposure as possible. August is also an option!
Tip 2 – Often the biggest challenge…work with your child in picking the right costume.
Sensory issues are the number one reason a child with special needs will put a veto on Halloween night. They are often unable to handle the sensory issues of not only the hectic and down right “weird” night, they just can’t wear a costume. It causes a ton of issues for the child and to top it off, it’s usually pretty cold here in Chicagoland come Halloween. Costumes aren’t usually very warm and it’s up to the parent to ensure they are able to adapt the costume into a full snow suit on their own.
Try a character from their favorite show, game or book. If you can buy it, do so but keep in mind, Halloween can be more fun making or putting together the costume with your child. If your child has input on the purchase, they may be more likely to wear it. Make sure you can add layers of clothing underneath, so pick a bigger size. Unless, of course, your child likes tight squeezes, big hugs and deep pressure contact…then you may win with the tighter gear.
Don’t worry if you end up taking the costume off, this is all about exposure and repetition. Perhaps they made it three houses with it on. Next year, they may make it six!
Tip 3 – Avoid games and activities that may be too scary.
Scary is a fun part of Halloween, but can be a nightmare for the special needs child. Luckily, there are many fun games that can be modified. Even games like bobbing for apples or swinging the apple on the stick can be difficult for special needs children to grasp and can prove to be dangerous as well.
In order to generalize skills, you can find fun Halloween games in stores and online to bring to the classroom party at your child’s school. Be sure to talk to the teacher to see if it’s appropriate to trial the game at home first. Also, never pressure your child or guilt them into participating in games at home or at parties you attend. Pumpkin carving is also a good activity for motor skills and may be great for some children and too challenging for many others. As a common rule of thumb for special needs children, it’s always a good idea to try these out on your child at home first before introducing them in the classroom or at a party. This could be too overstimulating for your child and they may avoid participating in a brand new activity in a brand new setting.
Tip 4 – Create a new family tradition like a “Halloween party for everyone.”
Did you know the act of knocking on doors and tricking-or-treating is actually becoming less and less popular? Many people are going to private parties so they can control the environment and the type of candy and food their child receives. This can be a new way of Halloween success for many, especially those on special diets. Often times, parents of a child that has diet limitations choose not to trick-or-treat at all due to the temptation of their child wanting to eat the candy. Going to the party? Bring a few homemade treats and mention to the host your special diet.
Don’t know of any Halloween parties? Try hosting a Halloween Play Date. You choose how many come and what happens. It is all up to you and what your child can handle. Just because you’re having or going to a party doesn’t mean you can’t stroll down the street together during the party.
Tip 5 – Know the Halloween plan and start practicing now!
Again we fall back on repetition and exposure. It is okay to start having your child ring the doorbell and say “trick-or-treat” for a nice candy reinforcer. Start walking your route and finding out which houses will be lit up and where the scary ones can be found. Feel free to dress up your child and play in the backyard. You could role play and incorporate a sibling to start getting used to the idea of Halloween.
Always remember, it is not about pushing your child beyond their limits to make it to that twenty-fifth house. Even driving to the houses of friends and family should be viewed as progress. Halloween is such a confusing holiday for even a neurotypical child, let alone for the six million children living with special needs. You are certainly not alone.
Tip 6- Have a child that is afraid of the dark? Go to the mall.
Sensory issues can include sensitivities to both light and dark. If you have a child that just can’t handle walking in the dark, especially due to all the people dressed in costumes that will be joining you, your local mall can be a great alternative. Plus, you can get a Gloria Jean Chocolate Chip Latte and your little ones can see what’s going on, and get a cookie.
As special needs parents, we struggle to endure the holidays and often feel we may be missing out on “what it’s supposed to be like,” but it’s ok to make adaptions so that everyone can enjoy what’s being offered. Change it up, make it doable and you just may enjoy a good ol’ Halloween night after all!
Oh…and no matter what you do, be safe.
Michelle O’Neill, AHSS Skills Coach and a Mother of a Special Needs Child (Plus Two!)