As Halloween approaches many parents are in the spirit preparing costumes and treats and getting ready for parties and trick-or-treating. But for parents of children with special needs, there is often more than your average preparation.
How does a child with sensory issues handle a costume or the noise of a busy neighborhood? How does a child in a wheel chair navigate stairs up to a house and what costume will work best in a wheel chair? How does a child with limited verbal skills communicate “Trick-or-treat” and “Thank you?” These and other thoughts go into the preparation of Halloween for parents with children with a disability.
As a household who receives trick-or-treaters it’s always a good reminder that the child who is grasping in the bowl may not be greedy, but may just have delayed fine motor skills and be struggling to take just one piece. The child who does not say thank you may not have poor manners, but may just be nonverbal. A child who might seem agitated may not have missed his or her nap, but might be experiencing sensory over load. So we’ve included some advice for you as well.
Norma Honeycutt, executive director for Partners In Learning, says that visuals are great ways to start talking with your child about Halloween. This will help to make the traditions of the evening more familiar and the evening itself less scary for the child. She suggests Halloween books and social stories.
Dr. Ashley Deaton, occupational therapist and co-owner of One Step At A Time Therapy Services, says that many kids with special needs cannot handle wearing a mask or a costume that is tight fitting around the neck. She says costumes that velcro shut and don’t require a mask or hood often work best.
For children who are less mobile, incorporate a child’s wagon or stroller into the costume. “Make the wheelchair look like a boat and the child dressing as a sailor or mermaid,” says Deaton.
Honeycutt reminds parents that, especially for young children, scary costumes for Halloween can feel very real. She suggests taking your child to a store and letting them look at all the costumes. “Show them scary costumes while they are not on. The worst thing that parents can do, that I so often see, is scare their child by putting on scary mask and laughing. Remember, that this is all new to them and their fear is real.”
Jenn Scott, who has a son with Down syndrome, shares that he does not like hats or masks. This Halloween he will be wearing skeleton pajamas with nothing on his head and a skeleton sweatshirt in case it’s cold.
Lindsy Maners says her son who has Down syndrome was fine with a costume last year, but this year he’s been having more sensory issues with clothes. “He wanted to be Spider-Man, but once he tried it on, he was very upset. So we opted for a football player, which is made up of all of his own clothes. Comfort and happiness and much more important.”
For children with sensory issues:
- Avoid hoods or hats
- Avoid or remove tags
- Avoid stratchy costumes
- Keep the wasteband loose
- Make a costume out of the child’s own clothing
- Make a costume out of sweat pant material
Deaton advises to avoid random houses. “Lots of people take the scare factor of Halloween very seriously and it can be traumatic for some kids to be scared like that,” she says. “Going to houses of family and friends and going to community trick-or-treat events such as the mall or downtown shops would be much safer.”
There are lots of options for children who are non or semi verbal to communicate phrases like “trick-or-treat” and “thank you.”
- Use a greeting card that allows you to record a message. With some Halloween paper and decorations to cover the original card contents, you can help the child record their “Trick-or-treat” message and then practice having them go up to the door and open the card when someone answers so that they can join in on the Halloween fun.
- Make written cards with phrases and put them on popsicle sticks or small rods. Allow the child to decorate them with festive colors and stickers. There are also ones you can download.
- Teach the child the signs for the phrases.
Advice to the trick-or-treat receiver
“The best advise for the people receiving trick-or-treaters is to not judge children’s behavior,” says Honeycutt.
“For people receiving trick or treaters I’d suggest buying nonfood treats to give in case a child comes to the door who doesn’t eat by mouth, can’t have candy, or is allergic,” says Deaton. She suggests a small coloring book/crayon combo from the Dollar Store. “You don’t have to worry about a choking hazard and they can practice their fine motor skills.” She said small stuffed animals or small balls are also good options.
Toni Robinson who works as an advocate for children with special needs
adds, “If someone can’t understand what a child says or means or needs, just say, ‘I am sorry, I don’t understand, but I want to. Would you (to the child or the adult traveling with) be willing to help me understand?’”
When trick-or-treating just doesn’t work
For some children, even with accomodations, trick-or-treating just isn’t fun. When that is the case, consider staying home and allowing them to pass out the candy.
“For our son, who experienced major discomfort with costumes of all kinds, was terrified of clowns, yet loved the idea of Halloween and giving treats, we listened to those preferences and allowed him to be a welcomer and treat distributor,” says Robinson, whose son is 30 and has special needs. “To this day, he still enjoys doing that and looks forward to Halloween. To this day, he has huge appreciation for all holidays and continues to invite us to notice reasons to celebrate day in and day out.”
Beth Goodman agrees, “We decorate the house with non-scary things, read books about dressing up.” She says her son, who has Down syndrome, doesn’t care to stay in a costume and he doesn’t eat candy. “So his job is to sit by me in the driveway, fire pit going, and pass out candy. We have to buy a lot because he’s generous with his handouts.”
Jill Wagoner is Secretary of the Board of Directors at Partners In Learning and the parent of a son with Down syndrome.
Jill Wagoner is the mother of a child with Down syndrome. She serves as an advocate, writer, speaker, fundraiser, and grant writer for organizations that support children with special needs. A former journalist and current marketer and public relations specialist, Jill has been published in many publications and blogs, including The Salisbury Post, Modern Parent, and Rowan Magazine.