Cast Your Own Spell for an Autism-Friendly Halloween

By Elizabeth Sautter

Halloween frights can go way beyond the thrill of ghosts and goblins. Fun can quickly become a real fear for some children, even though they’ve been told repeatedly that the scary witches and bloody masks are pretend. 

For some kids with autism, any costume creates confusion and anxiety about what’s real and what isn’t. Others become giddy from all the excitement and sugar, then struggle to calm themselves down. Halloween typically comes with plenty of hype and build-up can be stressful and distracting for weeks in advance.

This Halloween, take some steps to reduce the overwhelming experiences. At the same time, you can seize the social and emotional learning opportunities that come with a night of adventure.

Here are ten tips and tricks from one of AAPC’s authors to make the experience calmer, happier, and even -- dare I say it? -- educational.

  1. NO SPOOKY SURPRISES: Reduce anxiety by planning ahead and trying on costumes in advance, so your child can assert control about being in costume or not. Some kids will benefit from visiting a costume store to see that even the scariest costumes are just fabric in a box or on a rack.

  1. HAPPY HAUNTING: Some children are sensitive to certain textures and fabrics. Involve them in making the costume or have them wear a store-bought one around the house to make sure it doesn’t create discomfort on the big day.

  1. WIN WITH A GRIN: Use pumpkins to carve out various emotions. What is a Jack-o’-Lantern’s expression telling you about its emotions? How will it make others feel when they come to the door and see the Jack-o’-Lantern’s face? Make a game out of this while you’re walking around the neighborhood. Find other Jack-o’-Lantern’s and try reading their expressions!

  1. LOOKING THROUGH NEW SPOOKTACLES: Help your child act out the character they have chosen for Halloween. What does this person or creature think and feel? If your child is wearing a scary costume, remind him to think about how others might feel if they were looking at or talking with him.

  1. GHOSTLY GUESSES: Halloween is filled with teachable moments for understanding emotions. When looking at others in costume or at pictures of people in costume, encourage your child to make guesses about what those characters might feel or say, based on the child’s knowledge about those types of characters. You could also do this while picking out a costume at the store.

  1. A WITCH IN TIME SAVES NINE: Prime your child for what the plans are for the night and help them recall what past Halloweens have looked like. Do they remember anything that might have been a trigger in the past? What tools could be helpful if that happens again or how can we avoid it from happening again?

  1. BEFORE YOU GO GOBLIN: Before trick-or-treating, give your child a healthy dinner to balance some of the sugar to come. Make sure the meal includes plenty of water, and maybe a nap if possible.

  1. SOCIAL SPELLS: Review the hidden rules of Halloween with your child prior to the big night. For example, take just one candy when trick-or-treating, and thank the person who offered the treat. If the lights are out at someone’s home, don’t ring the doorbell.

  1. WISE WIZARDRY: Remind your child that if they want to comment on someone else’s costume, they should only say something positive, otherwise they will hurt the other person’s feelings.  The same goes for any treats that they are given, remember, if you don’t like the candy, you don’t have to eat it but you should still say thank you.

  1. TIME TO FLY: Keep a careful watch on your child during trick-or-treating to check for signs of overload. Regularly ask your child how she’s doing and if she’d like a break. If you parental radar tells you that your child is on the edge, wrap up the evening as quickly as possible.

Extra Tips from the AAPC Publishing Staff

ENCHANTED MAP: Preplanned route - get a map of your neighborhood, and draw a route on it for your child to memorize a few days before Halloween. Drive along the route a few times as well for another visual while also explaining that, "If a light is on, we'll go there. If there's no light, we go to the next one."

FRIGHTENING FLAVORS: Candy Taste - get some Halloween candy before Halloween and have your child try some to figure out what they like and don't like. After trick-or-treating, play a sorting game to separate the candy the child likes from what the child doesn't like.

STILL SPOOKY: Some children might not like carving a pumpkin up for a jack-o-lantern. Draw a face on it with a marker instead and place a flashlight in front of it for light.

HOCUS POCUS: If you're watching a scary movie, it's okay to be scared, cover your head with a blanket, or leave the room. It's not okay to scream or throw something at the TV.

SCARY, NOT SCARY: Animatronics can also be scary, so while in the Halloween store, your child will be able to walk by and maybe touch them to see that they aren’t real. Understanding how they work might help them realize that they aren’t real and become less scary.

Enjoy Halloween, and keep those frights under control!

For more useful tips and tricks for holidays and everyday routines and activities, check out the book Make Social Learning Stick! by Elizabeth Sautter. This guide offers over 185 practical tools and activities that you can easily fit into everyday routines and holidays to help children gain and improve social and emotional competence.