A Happier Halloween with Autism

Halloween: teachers dread it, kids count down to it, and parents may feel a little of both.  Figuring out a costume, finding time to put it together, and preparing for the inevitable sugar rush can be overwhelming.  For parents of children on the autism spectrum, Halloween can be especially trying.  This is mostly because of how hard it is for the child.

Halloween can be difficult for a child with autism for a variety of reasons.  Costumes with uncomfortable textures or components, unusual routines, and a need to engage socially are just a few.  You can ease these difficulties for your child by planning and practicing.

In planning for Halloween, you may realize you have a lot to work on.  Practicing too many steps at once, though, can set your child up for failure.  Rather than jumping straight in to practicing everything in the neighborhood, you may want to break skills down into smaller pieces first.

In order to determine what and how you will practice, think about your child’s current skills.  Let’s look at this by categories of what’s involved in Halloween:

1. Costumes

  • Does your child have a hard time with textures?
  • Does your child struggle with wearing hats or masks?

Picking costumes that are comfortable for your child or that do not involve hats or masks is an obvious solution here.  If the pants that come with the costume are itchy for instance, you can think about swapping them out for softer sweatpants.

If that’s not an option, or if you want your child to adapt, you can practice putting the item on for longer and longer periods of time.  I would start small and provide a potential reinforcer (i.e., something your child wants and is willing to work for) following successful attempts at keeping the item on for the desired amount of time.  Slowly building up from there, you’ll be able to shape this behavior of your child wearing the item for longer periods of time.  While wearing a Halloween costume is not necessarily a top priority, there are times when wearing certain articles of clothing are necessary, such as a coat in the winter.  The same method of shaping this behavior applies.

2. Safety

  • Is outdoor safety a concern?
  • Is it difficult to keep your child with you or a group?

Practice hand holding or walking next to you in your neighborhood.  If this is really difficult, you may want to practice this in your house or backyard first.  Again, having a reinforcer present will go a long way here.

3. Routine

  • Can your child follow the routine of pushing the doorbell, saying “Trick or Treat”, and holding out basket for candy?

Start by teaching your child each step individually.  Once your child has the individual steps down, you can practice putting them together as a routine. You may want to practice this at home first, then move to neighbors or friends you are comfortable practicing this with.

4. Saying Trick or Treat

  • Is your child able to say “Trick or Treat”?
  • Is your child verbal?

You can practice having your child repeat “Trick or Treat” after you.  If your child is not verbal, you might want to think about them holding up a sign that reads “Trick or Treat”.

5. Answering questions

  • Does your child know the answers to basic social information questions?

Adults love seeing little ones on Halloween and will often engage with them by asking basic social information questions, such as, “What’s your name?”, “How old are you?”, or “Who are you?” (referring to costume).  You can work on your child learning the answers to these basic social information questions with you at home.  Make sure to generalize this skill by having multiple people ask these questions.

There are a lot of different things involved in Halloween that can be a struggle.  Pick the greatest concern first and go from there.    Following these tips should make Halloween go smoother for everyone.  You may even get to treat yourself to some candy at the end of the night.