Halloween can be a scary time for some children, especially those with sensory processing disorders or developmental delays. Literature reviews indicate that one in 20 children have the “hidden” disability of Sensory Processing Disorder. These children often have a difficult time with all the sights, sounds, smells, movement, and visual input associated with the “sweet” holiday.
Over the years working with children, I have come up with the following suggestions for parents to make the holiday more fun for children (and families of these children) who struggle with Sensory Processing Disorder.
As an aside, I also have to admit that I have used these tips with my own children, and they can certainly make the night much smoother more fun for the entire family!
Help your child(ren) know what to expect. Read a book about trick-or-treating or prepare children by watching a Halloween version of one of their favorite age-appropriate shows. There are tons of cute Halloween shows including Dora, Diego, Elmo, and Olivia. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with a good-old Charlie Brown classic. Some networks even run a full week of fun Halloween programming. Remember to limit total time with electronic media to a max of two hours a day.
For some children, you might want to start reading social stories a couple weeks before you plan to hit the streets. You can find a wonderful free Halloween social story here. You might even write your own story that works with what your family has planned for the evening.
Get costumes out early. Allow your children to play dress up early and frequently. Allowing them exposure to siblings in costumes, as well as exposure to own their costumes, may help eliminate some of their fears. When choosing their costumes, be aware of their specific sensory preferences. If your child is sensitive to textures, make his or her costume from old clothes or buy parts of the costume from thrift stores. Used clothing that has been washed frequently tends to be more tolerable on the skin for most children with tactile issues. If your child has issues with facial sensitivities, then avoid the masks and paint altogether. There are plenty of ways to dress up without covering the face.
Have a practice run with family members. Have your child practice the routine with family members in the safety of your home. Have family members stationed at different doorways and let the child knock and complete the entire trick-or-treat routine. Once your child is comfortable at home, have him or her practice with a few select neighbors.
Survey the street. Take a walk a couple days before trick or treats around the time you will be out. This will give you a good idea of homes to avoid based on scary decorations, flashing lights, and so on. Remember, on Halloween night, you shouldn’t have to stay out long. If you are looking to give your child the experience and a chance at some family fun, limit your time out to one or two streets. If you stay out too long, you are risking a chance of sensory overload.
You may also choose to avoid Halloween night altogether by attending a zoo trick-or-treat day or a “trunk or treat” sponsored by a local church or business. Choosing to have a small dress-up party at home where you can control the amount of sensory input may also be an option for your family.
Let children help with preparations for your home. Removing the insides of a pumpkin is a great sensory activity for children who are hypo-responsive or need extra input. This activity could be avoided for the defensive child by decorating the pumpkin with stickers or by adding Mr. Potato Head type decorations to the mix.
Finally, remember to limit sugar and preservatives, as kids with sensory issues can be more sensitive to these substances. You can replace them in your child’s loot bag with inexpensive balls, tattoos, stickers and other fun things that do not involve excessive sugar.
Many sensory children can tolerate the Halloween experience without difficulty, but if your child struggles with this unique holiday, we hope these tips will help.
If you have questions or would like to add any tips to my list, feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
From our family to yours, Happy Trick-or-Treating!
Melissa Hough, OTR/L, C/NDT
Owner, Children’s Therapy Center, PSC
Melissa Hough, OTR/L, C/NDT is an occupational therapist with over 20 years of pediatric experience and certifications in Sensory Integration (SI) and Neuro-Developmental Treatment (NDT). Melissa has a professional and personal perspective when working with children because she is also the adoptive parent of a child with special needs.
Since 2002, Children’s Therapy Center, PSC has served thousands of families in Louisville, Kentucky, by providing high-quality therapy services and parent education.