While many children enjoy Halloween traditions of trick-or-treating, pumpkin carving, and interaction with costume-clad “ghouls and goblins,” children affected by a sensory processing disorder may interpret and react differently to these holiday activities.
“Children with sensory processing challenges may become overwhelmed with the wide array of sounds, sights and textures at Halloween time,” says Sandra Schefkind, MS, OTR/L, Pediatric Program Manager at the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA). “With careful planning and consideration of the child’s unique needs and strengths, families can determine which Halloween traditions are best for the child. Occupational therapy practitioners can recommend activities or environmental modifications so that Halloween is a day of fun — not dread — for children and their families.”
The American Occupational Therapy Association offers the following tips for caregivers to make Halloween a positive experience for children with sensory challenges and offer fun alternatives to increase participation in the activities:
1. Prepare for the day.
Halloween traditions often clash with established rules, like taking candy from strangers. To help children understand what Halloween is—and is not—read stories that reflect your values ahead of time. Unpredictable events like the unexpected “boo” or changes in routine like new foods or places can be challenging for some children. Reviewing and rehearsing the activities through stories, songs, and pictures will help your child anticipate activities more favorably.
2. Make costumes safe, comfortable, and imaginative.
Before shopping, parents should share costume guidelines with their children to prevent in-store meltdowns. Children should wear costumes in advance to test their comfort level when walking, reaching, and sitting. Costumes that are too long or loose pose safety concerns like causing tripping or catching fire. Masks are not recommended since they inhibit breathing and vision. Beware of costumes with exposed tags or elastic parts. Consider whether your child will feel too warm or cold in character. Will your child be willing to wear a coat over his costume? Make-up may also feel slimy, and its smell may be off putting. Will your child think the fabric is too scratchy, tight, slippery, or stiff? A child with sensory processing challenges may appreciate the “less is more” approach. For example, a short cape may suffice a superhero costume or a green shirt could indicate a turtle or frog.
3. Trick-or-Treating can be pleasant, up to a point.
Practice the sequence of walking to the door, saying “trick or treat,” putting the treat in the bag and offering “thank you” at homes of familiar neighbors. Children may benefit from starting early and avoiding the dark. Consider trick-or-treating on quiet streets or only at homes of family and friends to keep the comfort level high. Skip homes with flashing lights, loud noises, and especially scary decorations. Review and rehearse street crossing. Eating candy while trick-or-treating can pose a choking hazard or trigger allergies. Determine the ground rules on indulging before leaving home.
4. Cater to your child’s preferences throughout the day.
Some children will seek opportunities to touch “eyeballs” and pumpkin innards because they enjoy touching wet or squishy textures. Other children will prefer to keep their hands dry by decorating jack-o-lanterns with stickers and markers rather than carving. Devise strategies ahead of time by inquiring what party activities will be offered. For example, a child who may not like bobbing for apples could participate by putting the apples in the bucket. Consider planning an event with a few friends, and save large parties for the future.
5. There’s no place like home.
Know when to stop the festivities. Look for signs of sensory overload in your child—fatigue, hyper-excitability, crying, and combativeness. Often, children like handing out the candy just as much as receiving it.
For more ideas, download (in English and Spanish) AOTA’s Tips for Enjoying Halloween with Sensory Challenges.