Making Halloween a “Treat” for All Kids
By Katy Springer
Like most kids, 5-year-old Remi loves Halloween. The Gilbert kindergartner enjoys picking out a costume, getting all dressed up and trick-or-treating with his brothers and sisters in his family’s neighborhood. But there are aspects of the spooky holiday that aren’t as fun for Remi, who was diagnosed with autism late last year.
“He loves holding out his bucket for candy, but he is non-verbal and can’t say ‘trick or treat,’” said Remi’s mom, Olivia Koenen. “Thankfully, his brothers say it for him, so it’s not an issue at all. I know other families have a harder time at Halloween.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 1 in 40 Arizona kids has autism, slightly higher than the national average of 1 in 44. Many of these children want to join in the fun of Halloween and other holiday activities, but the day can pose real difficulties.
“It’s tricky because outwardly, Remi looks like other little boys, so people don’t know he has challenges in areas like communication,” said Koenen. “He loves participating in Halloween and other fun things, so we do everything we can to make it work for him and our other kids.”
For Koenen, who has four other children, that means thinking through every detail of the festivities to preempt potential issues and ensure her family has a positive experience. “For example, we avoid costumes with tons of accessories that are likely to frustrate him, and we avoid houses with jump scares and overly creepy décor,” she said.
Morgan Hall, PhD, is a clinical neuropsychologist who specializes in autism and has worked with kids like Remi for more than 20 years. Today, she serves as clinical director for Axis for Autism, a Phoenix company that specializes in autism diagnoses for children and adults. “As parents and advocates, we want to give kids every opportunity to participate and have fun,” said Dr. Hall. “My best advice for parents on Halloween is to focus on the things that will be fun for your child and skip the rest. If the school costume parade would cause unneeded stress, swap it. If your child would have more fun making crafts at home than knocking on neighbors’ doors, do that instead.”
She also has advice for members of the community on Halloween and year-round. “Children with autism struggle with social communication – things like speech, eye contact and understanding social cues,” she said. “These kids may not smile or say ‘thank you’ when you give them a treat on Halloween, but it’s not because they’re rude. My hope is that people can show kindness and patience with all children, even if they don’t understand the kids’ behavior.”
Added Koenen, “Remi may not say ‘thank you’ out loud, but he is doing his very best and I am so proud of him. I can’t tell you how grateful I am when people are kind and accepting with my boy and our family.”
Dr. Hall and Koenen offer guidance to families of children who have autism and sensory sensitivities to make Halloween a fun and friendly day for all.
Tips for Autism Families
- Keep costumes simple. Try creating a costume with basic pieces like t-shirts and comfortable pants. If your child is set on a store-bought costume, have them wear pajamas underneath to protect against scratchy tags, zippers and Velcro. Consider skipping costumes with ill-fitting accessories – like masks, beards, jewelry and shoe covers – to avoid extra frustration.
- Plan the night. Children who have autism want routine and predictability. Talk about and practice the big night in advance. Plan and walk your trick-or-treating route with your child, read stories about Halloween and talk about what’s real and what’s not – like witches, scarecrows and other Halloween spooks.
- Stick to normal routines. Along those same lines, keep your child’s mealtime and bedtime schedules as close to normal as possible. Hunger or exhaustion will exacerbate any challenges.
- Go with a group. If your child wants to trick-or-treat, go with siblings, cousins or close friends who can help manage the social interaction that’s built into the holiday. This is especially important for kids who can’t say “trick or treat.”
- Use alternative communication. Some kids may want to communicate “trick or treat” – even if they’re non-verbal. Create and decorate a written sign they can hold up when they knock on doors or pre-record a “trick-or-treat” message on an iPad or assisted communication device.
- Avoid scares. Some Halloween décor is simply too scary for young kids. Avoid homes that may give your child a big fright.
- Consider alternatives. For some children, trick-or-treating is not a great option – no matter how well you plan. Find an autism- or sensory-friendly Halloween event in your community or plan a fun night at home.
- Keep it fun. Halloween is supposed to be fun. Don’t feel like you and your child have to participate in any activities that will provide extra stress or frustration.
- Create a back-up plan. No matter how well you prepare for Halloween, know your plans may go awry. If your child is overloaded with sensory input – music, lights, noise – find a low-key space and take a break, or simply call it a night.
Friendliest Home on the Block
Even if you don’t know a child with autism, odds are there is one in your neighborhood. Dr. Hall and Koenen also shared ideas for making your home an inclusive haven for all children on Halloween night.
- Accept differences. Know that some kids have different abilities. Some won’t say “trick or treat” or smile and say thank you. Understanding and acceptance will make all the difference for these children and their families.
- Offer alternative treats. Children who have autism are more likely than other kids to have food allergies. Offer trick-or-treaters a non-candy option, too, like stickers, erasers, pencils or jewelry.
- Create a scare-free path. If your décor is extra spooky, create an alternative trick-or-treat walkway for young kids who may not cope well with big scares.
- Welcome kids of all ages. Lots of older children and teenagers enjoy trick-or-treating. Even if they seem too old, take comfort knowing they’re engaged in a safe and wholesome activity on Halloween.
For most kids, Halloween is a fun and exciting holiday. For others, the lights, noises, spooks and break from routine can overload the senses and create a host of stressors. For those children, planning and preparation go a long way in ensuring a happy experience.
Have Concerns About Your Child?
If your child experiences sensory processing issues, struggles with social communication or shows any other behaviors you believe may indicate autism, schedule an evaluation right away. A diagnosis is often required to access services through many insurance providers as well as the Arizona Department of Developmental Disabilities. And since early intervention is linked to better short- and long-term outcomes for children, it’s best to move quickly.
You can start by scheduling a visit with your child’s pediatrician or contacting Axis for Autism, an Arizona healthcare company specializing in autism evaluation with offices in the Valley and in Tucson, for a free 15-minute screening. During that time, Axis for Autism’s team will determine if a full evaluation is appropriate and guide you through next steps.
Katy Springer is a freelance writer and reporter. A mother of three school-age children, she lives in the East Valley.