For a child who has special needs, Halloween can present opportunities both for fun and for frustration. The annual act of trick-or-treating may seem routine for many of us, but there are numerous aspects to the night's festivities that are just downright trying for some of our kiddos. Breaking down some of the steps involved in trick-or-treating by looking simultaneously at the challenges--and opportunities for managing them--may be helpful as you start to plan.
Introducing the concept of Halloween:
Knowledge is power. Try using pictures, books, or appropriate videos to help your child grasp the understanding of Halloween. Social stories are a great way to engage your child both in the concept of the holiday and the routines that accompany it.
Communicating what to expect:
For some children, using picture symbols to represent “first this, then this” is a good way to prepare them for how things typically unfold during a Halloween outing. For instance, the steps involved in approaching a neighborhood home, ringing the doorbell, saying/signing/or otherwise communicating the message “trick-or-treat”, holding out the treat bag, and saying thank you can be shown in sequence with pictures. Even the skill of waiting one's turn can be challenging for some children, but is a common skill called upon during trick-or-treating.
Practicing through a dress rehearsal at home can be a fun and useful way to get kids more comfortable and confident. Whatever mode of communication the child uses to both understand and communicate is the same way to prepare information for the purpose of supporting your child to be successful.
Dealing with the unpredictability of Halloween:
Often during trick-or-treating, and almost always in the name of fun, some folks dress up on the scary side and even decorate their homes using a haunted house type theme. It's not uncommon for ghosts and ghouls to jump out from behind something to spook trick-or-treaters. It may be a good idea to avoid these situations altogether, as some children will not be able to regroup and continue on during the evening. It is a very individual thing from one child to the next, so taking some time to consider his or her ability to take surprises like these in stride are important.
Sensory aspects to think about:
Scratchy costume fabric, layers of clothing, masks, flashing lights, the din of children's laughter , yelling, darkness, and other unexpected sounds are all things to think about in getting ready for the evening's activities. Sometimes, simply talking with your child about what they can expect can be helpful. Other strategies can include using some of the suggestions already listed to specifically address the sensory challenges the child will encounter. Again, whatever your child uses to be successful with processing sensory information during a typical day is often going to be a good support to help them integrate sensory information on Halloween.
Recognizing the teachable moments:
After the trick-or-treating is over, there are fun activities to share using the candy and other goodies your child collected. Together, you can count, sort, and, of course, enjoy the variety of treats. For children who have a hard time with fine motor tasks, even something as ordinary as removing wrappers can be a teachable moment. It may be that you need to help your child by starting the unwrapping. Then, let your child complete the process. Conversely, your child might be a “starter” and can do most of the steps involved in unwrapping, but needs help finishing the task. Whatever your child's skills are, keep them in mind when sharing time together after the trick-or-treating is over.
Taking a little time to get some advance planning done can make it more likely that a child with special needs will enjoy the evening and feel successful. In the days ahead, use what worked and what didn't work in your future planning for effective and fun strategies to support your child during the upcoming holiday season. Good luck!! and Happy Halloween!