October can be full of fun, Halloween-themed events, culminating in trick-or-treating. While this tradition may seem enjoyable and simple for most families, it can present a number of potential obstacles for families with a child diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). New social rules and novel situations (strangers, new sights and sounds, and itchy costumes) may present difficulties that can make trick-or-treating more stressful than recreational. With proper practice and considerations, however, Halloween can be enjoyed by all!
Leading up to the holiday
- Prepare your child by sharing information about Halloween traditions. Use a social narrative to introduce the basic steps and rules of trick-or-treating, or find books and fun movies that give examples of other children trick-or-treating. Social narratives can be used to prepare an individual prior to the holiday and then adapted to a portable visual schedule on the night of Halloween. Visual schedules and social narratives can be changed to include more or less information. For new trick-or-treaters or those who might struggle to stop when the night is coming to an end, consider predetermining how many houses you and your child will be visiting before the evening is “all done.” Create a checklist to mark off each house as you go.
- Let your child select their own costume, and ensure that your child is comfortable in it by trying it on in advance. Let them play in it for short periods of time in the weeks leading up to Halloween.
- Find opportunities to practice, starting at home. If possible, teach your child how to knock on the door, say “trick or treat,” and then “thank you.” You can role play as the person giving out treats. Provide praise and rewards to encourage your child to complete the routine independently. Depending on your child, you can do a few, small practices and reminders, or do a full “dress rehearsal” where you even incorporate costumes. After you teach the routine, find family, friends, or neighbors who are willing to let your child come practice at their house ahead of time. This way, your child will be able to try out their new skills without the hubbub of a busy evening. Afterward, you and your child can rehearse parts of the routine that still need additional practice.
- Meet your child where they are! If your child struggles with vocal communication, incorporate their signs or use a visual communication board. Multiple resources have created “trick-or-treat” cards that non-vocal individuals can present to communicate. One example, from positivelyautism.com, can be can be found here. Practice is equally important for children across different communication styles. When preparing your visual communication board for trick-or-treating, be sure to include basic requests such as “help,” “all done,” and “potty” as well as terms such as “yes” or “no” that can be used throughout the night.
The night of Halloween
- If possible, start your trick-or-treating at places where your child is already comfortable, such as neighbors, friends, and family members’ homes. This will allow your child to get accustomed to the changes in their surroundings (other children wearing costumes, Halloween decorations covering houses), provide more opportunities to practice in safe spaces, and may help you gauge your child’s overall interest in participation.
- Respect your child’s limits. If your child is showing signs of discomfort, and those signs do not seem to decrease after repeated practice, or if your child is showing signs of agitation, you can ask whether they would like to take a break or go home for the night. If your child cannot communicate these preferences, err on the side of caution and end early. It is better to end on a good note than to push your child past their limits of comfortability.
- Intersperse treats for positive behavior and participation in Halloween celebrations and routines. Sneak your child a Skittle or two from their treat bag for being brave enough to say “trick or treat” or “thank you,” or for simply walking up on to a stranger’s porch. Treats are one of the best perks about Halloween!
- If possible, avoid spectacles that could be scary, too loud, or too visually stimulating for your loved one.
- Call in reinforcements, if possible! Go with a group of friends or bring loved ones who may help your child feel more comfortable. Including other children who are already familiar with the trick-or-treat routine can be helpful, as your child will have a peer model.
- Bring a change of clothes, some snacks, and preferred item/toy for your child. This is particularly important if you decide to go in a group, or if going home is not immediately available for some other reason. Ensuring your child’s comfort will make the holiday something to look forward to from year to year.
Alternatives to traditional trick-or-treating
- Find local community events, such as trunk-or-treating or sensory-friendly celebrations. These events are often calmer, may be less crowded, and often have professionals who are accustomed to working with children with ASD and other special needs.
- Host a Halloween party or do trick-or-treating in your own home. Trick-or-treating at home can be just as fun! Help your child go room-to-room and knock on each door, after setting up friends and family members who are ready to answer the door and give out treats.
- Stay in and let your child help hand out candy to trick-or-treaters (if they’d like to). Repeated visitors wearing funny costumes can be more entertaining for some children, and your child will have the comfort of being in their own home.
Halloween can be fun for everyone! Take into consideration the preferences and strengths of your loved one, and you will be set up for success. In whatever way you choose to participate, we wish you and your loved one a very Happy Halloween!
Lea Crusen, MA, LPA, BCBA, is a member of ASNC’s Clinical Department in the Wilmington Region and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
ASNC’s Clinical Department staff is composed of PhD and master’s-level licensed psychologists, Board Certified Behavior Analysts, and former special education teachers. We provide individualized intensive consultation using evidence-based practices to support children and adults across the spectrum in home, school, employment, residential and other community-based contexts. We also deliver workshops to professionals on a wide range of topics including but not limited to, strategies to prevent and respond to challenging behaviors, best practices in early intervention, functional communication training, and evidence-based practices in instruction for K-12 students with autism.
To find out more, contact us at 919-390-7242 or email@example.com.
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