Halloween Tips for Kids with Sensory Issues

October 6th, 2016

Originally published on parents.com

Halloween can be stressful for kids with sensory issues, but following this advice can help keep the holiday fun for everyone.

Halloween is my favorite holiday, and when my son Liam was born, I couldn't wait to dress him up, take him trick-or-treating, and generally immerse him in the sugary highs of the day.

We made it through two years.

On his first Halloween, Liam tolerated a Batman costume over his pj's just long enough for me to snap some pictures. When he was 2, I dressed him in an adorable gnome costume, but he tugged at the itchy beard and immediately got a lollipop tangled in it, fussed through the pictures, and was asleep by the time the first trick-or-treaters arrived.

By Liam's third Halloween, he had an autism diagnosis, and I'd learned that many of his behaviors were products of a hypersensitive sensory system. When things are too loud, bright, or unfamiliar, kids with sensory issues often shut down or melt down -- or both.

Halloween -- with its literal parade of new faces, uncomfortable costumes, and bright, loud, unpredictable elements -- can be a time of stress for a child with sensory issues, but it doesn't have to be totally avoided. We asked experts, as well as parents of kids with sensory issues, for their tips on how help make the holiday more fun for everyone.

Think through all the senses: Do a sensory inventory -- considering a child's sense of sight, hearing, touch, smell, movement, and body awareness -- when prepping for Halloween, advises Carol Kranowitz, the author of The Out-of-Sync Child. Figure out what may cause the most sensory stress for your child and modify accordingly.

Avoid face paint and masks: Masks can irritate a child's face, and many kids with sensory issues can't tolerate face paint. Kranowitz notes that masks that narrow or limit a child's vision can interfere not only with the child's line of sight, but also with balance and movement, causing inherently challenging tasks like going up or down stairs to be even trickier.

Create a costume from familiar clothing: Store-bought costumes are often made of cheap material, may smell funny, and can irritate kids' skin -- all of which can cause a child sensory stress, Kranowitz says. Kelly Lynch, a Milwaukee mom to a 7-year-old with a rare genetic disorder and many sensory issues, uses normal clothes for her daughter's Halloween costumes, and skips the masks, face paint, and accessories. "Last year my daughter was Emily Elizabeth from Clifford the Big Red Dog," she says. "The year before she was a ballerina. We just use clothing from her closet, which she's already comfortable with. This makes it more fun for all of us."

When trick-or-treating, keep it familiar: If you do trick-or-treat, stay close to home. "We go to a few of the neighbors my daughter knows well, and then she lets us know when she's had enough," Lynch says.

Maintain routines: It's easy for Halloween festivities to throw routines off-track, but resist the urge to stay out trick-or-treating past bedtime or to pack too many fun activities into the day. "When my daughter was younger, her bedtime routine was an important part of her ability to function and be happy," says Katie Dimmel, of St. Paul, Minnesota, whose preteen is on the autism spectrum and has sensory issues. "When something disrupted that routine it meant meltdown and stress for her and us. So we celebrated Halloween with daytime activities."

Modify school celebrations, if possible: In a school setting, kids with sensory issues benefit from modification, preparation, and accommodation. "In some schools, we do a costume parade rather than a party, we use social stories to prepare kids for what to expect, and we work on sensory integration by allowing kids to do things like play with the insides and outsides of a pumpkin," says Shawna Vasquez, an occupational therapist in the Milwaukee Public Schools. "These activities allow kids with a range of sensory issues to enjoy the Halloween theme without it overwhelming them."

When Liam was in a school setting, I met with his teacher so we could brainstorm ways to modify class Halloween celebrations for him. She was happy to let me pack fruit in lieu of candy; he walked in the Halloween parade with his classmates, but only as long as his sensory issues allowed; and, when he got overwhelmed, he and his one-on-one returned to the classroom for some quiet time. Talking to his teacher about simple modifications like these ensured that he could still participate in the fun.

Keep things as calm as possible: It's not easy keeping any kid calm during Halloween festivities, but doing so is an especially important goal for children with sensory issues. Help your child stay centered and focused by practicing calming activities that can be done before or during the festivities, Kranowitz says. "Calming the child's mind with quiet and encouraging words is good, calming the child's body is better, and teaching the child to calm his or her own body is best."

Activities that deliver strong sensory input to the muscles and joints are always calming and organizing, she adds, and can include:

  • Jumping on a trampoline to get some good, rhythmic jolts into your child's body.
  • Sucking applesauce through a straw, chewing on ice chips, or gnawing a bagel for oral-motor input.
  • Lifting, carrying, pushing, and pulling heavy loads, such as lifting a pumpkin and carrying it to the party, or pulling it in a wagon.
  • Having your child crouch and wrap his arms tightly around his legs.
  • Pushing against a tree or wall.

I've found that when Halloween celebrations get too loud or the parade of trick-or-treaters ringing the doorbell starts to overwhelm Liam, everybody wins if we step away from the stressful situation. This can mean taking a break from trick-or-treating; heading into a quiet room and giving him his iTouch; or just talking to him in a soothing voice and following his lead for what he'd like to do (usually snuggling quietly).

Find fun that works for your family: "We don't do Halloween in the traditional sense, but we do things that work for our girls," says Dani Rossa, a Milwaukee mom to two school-age girls on the autism spectrum who both also struggle with sensory issues like tactile defensiveness and auditory sensitivity. "Sometimes my husband and I actually dress up, stand in the bedroom, and the kids come and knock on the door. Other times we just go on a walk in costume, and if people are sitting outside, the kids get candy without having to knock on doors. And sometimes even these activities are too much, and we do nothing -- and that's okay."