Halloween is right around the corner. It's a fun time of year for many children, with trick-or-treating, hayrides, corn mazes and autumn festivals. It can be a trying time for children on the spectrum. The costumes can be too much either visually or physically, and the activities a little overwhelming.
But some kids on the spectrum enjoy dressing up and getting candy. Trick-or-treating can be a great way for them to participate with neuro-typical children, without too much actual interaction or any expectation of conversation. It's worth a try but talk about it ahead of time, showing your child pictures of trick-or-treaters, going through the steps involved and explaining the sights and sounds on your child's level.
Costume tips for children on the autism spectrum
If your child wants to dress up, consider sensory issues when choosing the costume. Each child's needs will vary greatly, for example some preferring a head covering and others not. Here are a few ideas to keep the costume as comfortable as possible:
- Avoid stiff or scratchy fabrics. Netting, fabric with wire inside or plastic parts may be too much for a child on the spectrum to handle. Even something soft can go wrong, like webbing or soft, stringy fabric meant to imply bandages, spider webs or other fabric that can easily get entangled, fall into the eyes or tickle the skin. Wigs can also be a nuisance unless your child really enjoys them.
- Noisy costumes may be too distracting and confusing, as well as sensory-inappropriate. Remember that what you consider noisy might not be the same as what your child considers noisy, so pay attention to soft rustling sounds, whooshing sounds, whistling as well as screeching and screaming.
- While some autistic children enjoy playing with makeup, others cannot tolerate the feeling of makeup on their skin. Makeup is a good way to make a great costume without all the uncomfortable head and face gear, but only if your child likes playing with makeup. Try it out ahead of time, if you aren't sure how your child tolerates makeup.
- Keep costumes a typical length. Of course, no child should wear a costume that is too long and could cause tripping. But children with autism may not appreciate a dress-style costume with pants underneath for modesty and warmth, the way other children might. It's usually best to make the top a shirt-length, even if it doesn't give the best visual effect. Pants should be the length your child is most used to wearing as well.
- If at all possible, draw from your child's favorite activities to design the costume. If your child loves Disney princesses, she will likely love to be a princess for Halloween, but she may need adjustments to her costume. If your child loves cars or trains, try to make a costume that is comfortable and wearable and that your child can relate to his cars or trains. Could be a train conductor -- or could be a train. It all depends on what your child can tolerate and what is interesting to your child. A child who likes Spiderman may enjoy wearing a Spiderman costume, while a child who doesn't know about or enjoy Spiderman may not understand the costume.
- Toddlers may do best in the one-piece costumes with hood, such as you can see in the slide show. These are comfy and much like wearing clothes. Older children will not usually have that option, although you may find something similar at Halloween specialty shops, for considerable investment. For older children, just go with your instincts and your child's verbal or nonverbal input regarding what makes your child most comfortable and what may irritate her.
Sometimes, very young children have more trouble with trick-or-treating. If your child hates it when he is three years old, it doesn't mean he will hate it when he is five years old. Discuss it and consider giving it a try when your child is a little older if the first try doesn't go well. Don't force your child to participate if she isn't comfortable.
Different trick-or-treating styles for different children
- Door-to-door trick-or-treat
Also, consider the environment. Nowadays, there are many venues for participating in Halloween trick-or-treat activities. Some neighborhoods still have a great time with the old-style, door-to-door trick-or-treat. If you know of such a neighborhood, you can drive your child there and then get out and walk door-to-door. When you see almost the whole neighborhood is participating, you can feel comfortable that it is safe, but still check the candy before letting your child eat any and walk your child to each house. Most autistic children will need to be walked up to the door and reminded of what to say and do -- this is great practice for children who are learning to greet others or ask for things. If there is a large group of children, hold your child back and take them up to the door when there are no others at that house, or only a couple of children.
If you aren't near a neighborhood that practices old-fashioned trick-or-treating, or if it proves to be too much for your child, try a trunk-or-treat. Churches and businesses often do a trunk-or-treat as a safe way for children to dress up and get candy. They are usually done outside in a parking lot, but some are held inside. Look for signs on churches and businesses, check your local papers, as well as online for dates and times of trunk-and-treats in your area. You can find a list of Raleigh-Durham area trunk-or-treat parties here: http://events.wncn.com/durham_nc/events/trunk+or+treat but you can find more, perhaps closer to your home, if you do your own search, with the search engine able to see your location. Not all trunk-or-treats are held on Halloween, so make note of the date and time. You may even be able to attend more than one.
- Sponsored parties
Often, churches or support agencies will sponsor Halloween parties geared specifically to the special needs community. Take advantage of these whenever you can. One popular one in the Raleigh area is held by the autism society, and you are sure to find others by searching online. The Wake County Autism Society holds an annual Halloween party for children on the spectrum and their families. This is best if you aren't sure how your child will handle Halloween, since everyone there is connected to autism in one way or another -- they will all understand, no matter what happens. It's a no pressure event: wear a costume or don't. It's free, but be sure to click the "Buy Tickets" link to RSVP, so they know how many to expect.
If you try different styles and venues and try again as your child matures but have little success, then it's best to let your child know he can choose not to participate at all. Give him a special treat or treats to let him know it's okay with you for him to say no to Halloween (or any other holiday).