For many kids, Halloween ranks right up there with Pascha and Christmas on their list of favorite holidays. Costumes, candy, wandering about the neighborhood after dark, when things are scary but not too scary – what’s not to like?

But a special needs Halloween is different. Halloween can be hard for children with anxiety and autism, with sensory processing disorder, with language delays.

If those are your children, what do you do? I’ve got a few ideas to help your child enjoy the day.

Halloween for Kids Who Don’t Like Anything New

Children with anxiety or children with autism often can’t tolerate anything new. The path to a happy Halloween for these kids involves advance planning and lots of practice. By the time October 31 arrives, if you’ve made everything familiar for them, they’ll be able to have a good time.

  • Read stories about Halloween parties and trick-or-treating. Talk about how Halloween at your house will be the same as in the book, and how it will be different.
  • Write a social story that walks through what your family will do on Halloween. Start at the beginning of the day. Make it as detailed as you can. Read it with your child until they’re comfortable with it.
  • Get your child’s costume early. Have your child practice putting it on and wearing it around the house, so it’s comfortable and familiar.
  • Practice trick-or-treating. Make it a game. Start with your own house: Have your child knock or ring the bell, say “Trick or treat!” and take one piece of candy from the bowl. Practice saying “Thank you” and walking away. Once your child has it down, practice at the home of a friend or neighbor.
  • If your child will be attending a Halloween party at church or school, find out what the plans are, and talk about it with your child. Practice the party games at home before the party. If an activity is planned that your child can’t tolerate (bobbing for apples? reaching into boxes to feel peeled grape eyeballs and spaghetti guts?) talk to the host to make sure your child won’t be pressured to participate.
  • Stop while the evening is still fun. That might mean trick-or-treating at only two or three houses. It might mean leaving the party early. That’s okay. Next year, you can do more.

Halloween for Sensory Kids

If you’ve got a sensory kid, you know exactly what we mean. The kids who can’t stand tags in their clothes. The ones who can’t tolerate anything itchy or scratchy, who can’t stand loud noises or strong smells, who seems uncomfortable in their own skin. Halloween is tough for these kids. And costumes are the biggest problem.

If you’ve got a sensory kid, check out the tips for kids who don’t like anything new. And plan on creating a sensory-friendly Halloween costume.

A small cild in a Halloween costume standing in his back yard. The costume is a penguin, made from a black sweatsuit and swimming flippers.

A comfy homemade costume, and time to get used to wearing it, can make Halloween happier for many children.

How to Make a Sensory-Friendly Halloween Costume

Create an easy, comfortable costume based on regular clothes. You don’t have to spend a lot of money or be super crafty to do this. Start with clothes your child already has, or buy something they’ll be happy to wear. Then add inexpensive accessories that can go in your dress-up bin after Halloween.

  • Put a white lab coat over jeans and a T-shirt, add safety goggles, and you’ve got a mad scientist. (Cue the evil bwa-ha-ha-ha!)
  • Start with a hooded sweat shirt and sweat pants, add ears and a tail, and you’ve got a cat or a dog or a fox or a mouse.
  • With white sweats, angel wings, and a tinsel halo, you have an angel.
  • A cheap black cape, a tall pointy hat, and a wand creates a wizard, no matter what clothes your child wears them with.
  • Ratty jeans, a striped knit shirt, a plastic sword, a bandana, and an eye patch is a pirate.

Skip the face paint, hair spray, or anything else that feels weird or has a strong smell. The goal is fun, not perfection.

Have your child practice wearing the costume several times before Halloween to make sure it’s comfy. Make adjustments as needed. If your child decides to sleep in the costume, you know you’ve done it right!

Halloween for Nonverbal Kids

When you go trick-or-treating, you have to say “Trick or treat!” But what if your child has a language delay and can’t say that? Does that mean she can’t go trick or treating?

No way! It might take a little advanced planning, but you can do it. Here are a few ideas from Summer Kinard, mama of a nonverbal child.

  • Dress your child in a costume they like. I wouldn’t dress my child as a mime or other silent character. Some of them are kind of scary, and that sort of costume is for other people’s comfort rather than the child’s fun and interests.
  • Use whatever modeled language scripts you usually use, but add on to them as needed. Like waving, “Hi, There!” plus “Trick or Treat.”
  • Use a social script visual sequence. You have to register to download this free sequence card from Teachers Pay Teachers, but it’s a great option for nonverbal/assisted language kids.
  • If your child has assistive technology that speaks for them, make sure there’s an easy pathway to the Trick or Treat visual prompt and that the batteries are charged.
  • Dress your child in a costume that includes safety lights as well as reflective strips. You won’t be able to communicate by sounds in the dark, so this is especially important if you’re separated in a crowd. Consider also having a distinctive set of matching glow in the dark accessories so you can find each other.
  • If your child does not answer to his/her name, make sure to plan carefully around neighborhood traffic. You might consider setting out and returning early, limiting your route, or participating in a Trunk or Treat, community or church fair, or other event with a more controlled environment.
  • Consider passing out Autism/Nonverbal Child cards to your neighbors ahead of time or on the night so that they will know to look out for your child. Include your phone number and address. Many business card/social card companies have Allergy Alert cards that can be easily modified for nonverbal/autism needs.
    A card the size of a business card has the nonverbal child's name and picture, as well as brief information that would help someone reunite him with his family.

    Summer Kinard’s family uses these cards to help keep their nonverbal child safe in the neighborhood.

  • If you cannot accompany your nonverbal child at all times, make sure those with him or her are capable of keeping an eye on your child at all times and advocating for his/her needs.
  • Be prepared to pause for sensory breaks or to go home early when your child gets overstimulated.

Have an Exit Strategy for a Special Needs Halloween

No matter how well you plan and prepare, it’s possible that your special needs Halloween won’t go well. You can mitigate the damage by having an exit strategy. This is especially important if you have more than one child. If you can avoid it, you don’t want one child’s difficulty to mean the other children have to end their fun.

So, if you can, take two adults and two cars to the Halloween party. That way, when one child has had as much fun as he can stand, one adult can leave with that child, and the other children can stay until the end of the party. Have two adults supervise a gaggle of trick-or-treaters, so one can go home with a child who becomes exhausted, and the others can continue trick-or-treating.

When you get back home, the child who had to call it an early evening might be able to pass out treats at the door. Or she might need a nap. Either way, practicing and participating in the holiday helps build your child’s social skills and resilience. That’s a good outcome for a special needs Halloween.

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Charlotte Riggle, author of Catherine's Pascha and The Saint Nicholas Day Snow
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