Halloween is one day, but the impact on people with autism can start days before the event, with all the activity and preparation for Trick or Treating, or Halloween parties. Or even weeks before, with the aisles in shops filled with bright orange pumpkins, scary masks, and bright-red fake-blood. This can have a sensory impact on somebody with autism. The impact of Halloween can last for days, or even weeks. If you decorate your house with black and orange streamers, Jack-o-lanterns, candles, fake spiders, rats, and bats, then it may be a nice change, a fun change for your child with autism, but it is still a change. And those of us in the autism community know that even good change can be overwhelming for somebody who has autism.
There can also be a lot of excitement around this time of year; siblings or friends of the child with autism may be looking forward to playing Trick or Treat, or going to a Halloween party, or even just to dressing up, and having some fun at home. People with autism can be very sensitive to changes in the moods of others – they may not always be able to recognise or articulate others feelings, or their own – but they can still be affected by the heightened mood of others.
Bright colours, changes in food such as extra sweets, and different smells in the air, can all contribute to a sensory overload which can leave the autistic person feeling overwhelmed and stressed. Costumes with itchy materials, or labels, face-masks, wigs, face-paints – all of these things can feel irritating and uncomfortable for someone with autism, even if they want to dress-up and take part. On the whole, although Halloween can be a fun and exciting time of year for all children, for children with autism it can also be a confusing, distressing, and overwhelming occasion.
Below are some tips that may help you and your child with autism to get the best out of Halloween, and hopefully to enjoy it J
- First and foremost – your child does not have to take part in Halloween activities if they don’t want to. You can plan something quiet to do with them that isn’t related to Halloween.
- Preparation is usually the key to success in most areas when it comes to autism; start preparing your child for Halloween a couple of weeks before the event actually takes place to give them time to get used to the idea of a change. One way you can do this is to have a calendar, and count down the days to Halloween with your child.
- Depending on your child`s age, it can be really helpful for them to learn lots of facts about Halloween such as where it originated from, and why it is still `celebrated` today. They may enjoy doing the research with you.
- For all children with autism, despite where they sit on the spectrum, writing and drawing about a subject can help them to absorb it better. They can write poems about Halloween, draw pictures, make collages – anything that is fun and helps to get the information across regarding what Halloween is, and that it is going to be happening soon.
- Even if you don`t `do` Halloween in your family, the likelihood is that your child will still be affected because of the merchandise in shops, the buzz of their friends who do take part in Halloween, and especially because of Trick or Treat, and how chaotic and noisy the streets can be on that night. Your child will still benefit from some preparation.
- If your child is going to wear a costume try to have this sorted out well in advance of Halloween. Let them get used to wearing it; to the feel of the material for example, and then if there is a problem you will have time to fix it, or find a different costume. Irritating material, and itchy labels can be particular problems.
- Don’t try to cajole your child in to wearing a mask or fake fangs if they are reluctant – these could prove to be extremely uncomfortable for someone with autism. The same goes for wigs, and face-paints. One useful tip is to try to make a costume from clothes that the child is used to wearing; for example take old leggings and T-shirt and tear them to make a zombie costume, rather than buying a ready-made one, and risking the material itching the skin. An alternative to wearing a mask can be to make one on a stick that they can hold in front of their face as and when they want to.
- If your child want to do Trick or Treat then prepare them for this by talking, writing, drawing in advance what they can expect. They may want to wait at the gate with you while siblings/friends go to the door, or they may want to go to every-other door, to have a little break in-between. It can be useful to put a time limit on how long the child will be Trick or Treating for, and maybe have something calm, and quiet planned for the return home.
- If your child is on a wheat and gluten free diet then you may need to make up some treats especially for them, or enough for the whole family so they are not eating differently from everybody else. When it comes to Trick or Treat, maybe you could speak to close neighbours, family or friends in advance, and give them some wheat and gluten free treats to give to your child when they knock.
- If your child is staying home, and needs to be shielded from the noise of Trick or Treat you could use ear phones, and put a favourite story CD on for them, or get them engaged in an activity they normally enjoy before all the noise starts, so they are already engrossed in something, and hopefully won`t be as affected by the noise.
- To prevent too many people knocking on your door, place a bowl of sweets just outside your door, or near the gate, with a note saying `…Unable to answer the door tonight, but please feel free to take a handful of sweets…`
- As the noise and excitement wears off your child may need some space to themselves, and some quiet time, so don’t make any demands on them, such as sitting with the family, or doing homework.
- Try as far as possible to stick to your child`s normal routine.
- Remember that they may experience a sugar-rush from too many sweets and this could affect their behaviour, making them more hyper-active initially, then possibly tired and irritable as they `come-down` from this.
- Don’t pressure the child to try new foods on Halloween, such as scary shop-bought cakes. Make sure their usual food is available for them.
Stress, anxiety, and sensory overload can last for days, or even weeks after such a big change in routine as Halloween. Don’t be surprised if your child does have a meltdown in the days, or weeks following Halloween. And remember; when they get upset, or explode because of something seemingly small, that this may actually just be the trigger that has released a build-up of emotions during the Halloween period.
If you do put in to practise some of the above tips you may not reduce sensory issues, or the risk of anxiety or meltdowns completely, but they should help to lessen these difficulties, hopefully making things easier for your child with autism, and for the family as a whole.
When my son was younger I was able to find lots of advice and information regarding the bigger changes and transitions, such as going from primary to senior school, or from senior school to college. I was completely unable to find any advice on the smaller, daily, weekly, monthly or yearly changes, and so I set about creating my own. The Transition Techniques I developed were specifically designed for times such as Halloween, Christmas, weekend to weekdays, changing of the seasons, and a whole host of other smaller changes – that don’t seem so small to people with autism!
To learn more about our Transition Techniques for these smaller, everyday changes take a look at our Transition Techniques book: http://jkp.com/catalogue/book/9781849052757
The KINDLE edition can be found here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Children-Spectrum-Conditions-Everyday-Transitions-ebook/dp/B00C4XR1PI/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1412715667&sr=8-1&keywords=helping+children+with+autism+spectrum+conditions+through+everyday+transitions+kindle
HAPPY HALLOWEEN FROM ASK-PERGERS?