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How to Celebrate Halloween with a Child with Special Needs

How to Celebrate Halloween with a Child with Special Needs

Helpful tips to celebrate Halloween for parents of children with special needs

Despite the BOO!-filled nature of Halloween, your child with an anxiety disorder, sensory issues, or other special needs can find a way to partake in the holiday: Preparation is key! Introduce your child to the holiday with fun songs, books, or movies that have a Halloween theme, suggests Debora Harris, president of the ELIJA Foundation and director of the ELIJA School on Long Island.

And refrain from trying new strategies to help your child cope with the sensations of the holiday, cautions Jana Diamond, M.S. Ed., board-certified behavior analyst at ABA Provider Services, which serves school-age children and young adults diagnosed with autism in New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey; your child can become overwhelmed with new stimuli and new approaches for coping, so use concepts that have worked for your child in the past.

Prepare your child with special needs to encounter

Spiderwebs, ghouls, and shrieking goblins: As decorations begin popping up around town and in school, use social stories that illustrate what children might see, Diamond says.

Superman, monsters, witches: Visit stores that have costumes on display, browse catalogs filled with Halloween characters, and play dress-up at home to help make children comfortable with the notion of seeing people in costume, Diamond says. Explain to your child that costumes are made up of clothing and props, nothing magical or scary.

Masks: Masks can be especially scary, as they transform even close family members into unrecognizable beings. “Find masks that your child is comfortable with and have her look in the mirror as she puts it in front of her face and yours,” Diamond says. “For some children, a simple game of peek-a-boo with a mask can also expose them to the concept.” Participating in an art project that entails making a mask can also help put kids at ease.

Choose an accessible Halloween costume.

Between sensory overstimulation while trick-or-treating to costumes that just don’t work, Halloween can feel more trick than treat for kids with special needs. However, by shopping one of these accessible costume lines, you can make Halloween a little easier on everyone. These costumes transform wheelchairs into fantastic props, allow access for feeding tubes and other equipment, and feature tag-free, comfortable materials.

accessible halloween costume

  • Target’s Adaptive Costume Collection features two costumes that are adaptable and accessible for kids in wheelchairs–and look amazing! Kids can be a pirate, complete with a ship, or a princess in a beautiful carriage. Each costume allows for easy entry, and the ship and carriage both cover the child’s wheelchair, completely transforming the chair into an awesome part of the costume.
  • The Magic Wheelchair is a nonprofit that design and creates Halloween costumes for kids in wheelchairs at no cost to families. The costumes are epic: Kids and their chairs have been transformed into characters in scenes from Batman, My Little Pony, and Harry Potter, and still more kids have been transformed into character of their own creation.
  • Spirit Halloween offers several accessible Halloween costumes for kids who would love to be princesses, ice cream truck drivers, and more. These costumes completely transform wheelchairs and other accessories and are often three-dimensional! While they’re more expensive than your typical Halloween garb, they ship for free.
  • Etsy is a haven for anyone looking to find unique, beautiful, and accessible costumes. Explore the site to find beautiful costumes from sellers, DIY inspiration, costume accessories, and more.
  • Rolling Buddies’ costumes, which can be found on Amazon, are sheets of durable but light plastic that can be placed over wheelchair wheels to disguise the chair. Rolling Buddies provides the biggest variety of wheelchair-friendly costumes: kids can have Alice in Wonderland characters, Santa’s sled, trains, planes, and pumpkin carriages, police cars, pirate ships, and more as the base of their costumes. Outfits not included. Head to Amazon to check out the Rolling Buddies lineup.

If your child with special needs is interested in dressing up for Halloween, have him wear the costume around the house prior to the holiday to grow accustomed to the look and feel of it. If sensory issues prevent this, steer clear of complicated ensembles and stick with a simple T-shirt with a theme, or a Halloween hat or other accessory. “Especially for a child with sensory needs, Halloween can be an extremely overstimulating event—and it will not go well if their main focus is being uncomfortable,” Diamond says.

Face paint can be a wonderful tactile sensation for sensory seekers, but skip it as well as eye masks, helmets, and other similar accessories for young sensory avoiders.

Map out a trick-or-treating plan.

Is your child daunted by the prospect of going door-to-door asking for candy from strangers?

  • Role-play with family members to simulate trick-or-treating. “Have a child knock on a door in his house and prompt him on what to say and what appropriate behavior is expected,” Diamond advises.
  • Discuss the language your child may encounter. Especially if she has good verbal abilities, Diamond recommends. After all, we don't typically say trick-or-treat on any other day.
  • Create an itinerary beforehand. “Some children respond best to schedules, so parents can map out a schedule of where they will be trick-or-treating and when they will be home,” Diamond says. And keep it short if you’re not sure how your child will respond.
  • Do a walk-through of the neighborhood ahead of time. Choose the houses you are going to visit and tell your neighbors what to expect and how to approach your child. Make sure there are not any spooky decorations or blinking lights that could upset your child.
  • Explicitly discuss the difference between Halloween and the rest of the year. Make sure your child understands that at other times, he is not to knock on strangers’ doors.

Trade in sugary treats.

Though it centers around candy, you don’t have to let dietary restrictions rule out trick-or-treating. Create a game whereby kids can trade in their sweet Halloween stash for treats they are able to eat or for non-edible prizes your child will love (a LEGO set, books, a movie, art supplies), Diamond suggests.

Learn about blue pumpkin buckets.

Started by a British mom, and supported by the National Autism Association, these blue buckets shaped like pumpkins are designed to hold candy or other treats, but also carry a special meaning: They indicate that the bucket-holder is on the autism spectrum. It’s a great way for kids with special needs to let others know that they may not communicate in the same ways children without special needs would typically communicate on Halloween.

Take notes.

Mental ones, at least: Notice what upsets your child, which times she enjoyed herself the most, and how much she itched and squirmed in her costume. The more details you commit to memory (or to a note in your iPhone), the better experience your child will have next Halloween.

Celebrate your own way.

If your child doesn’t want to go trick-or-treating, there are other ways to celebrate Halloween that fall within his comfort zone.

  • Your child can help pass out candy to trick-or-treaters, Diamond suggests. From this safe remove, she is still participating in the holiday and practicing some social skills along the way.
  • Host a Halloween party with family and friends at home; children can help make Halloween cookies or special orange foods.
  • Watch age-appropriate Halloween TV shows or movies.

“If you know your children—and how to tailor the experience to their needs—then they can definitely manage it,” Diamond advises. But also consider this: “Halloween is a tradition, but is it a tradition that the parents feel is a priority for their family?” There’s nothing wrong with deciding not to take part in the holiday if it’s not a priority and it causes a lot of anxiety for your child.

However, parents should still work on exposing children to Halloween sights and sounds so they’re not shocked when they go out in October. “Halloween presents the perfect opportunity to work on skills,” she says. “It’s a teaching opportunity.” It’s not all about candy, after all.

Here at NYMetroParents, we've got everything you need to have a safefun, and festive fall and Halloween season.  Whether it is pumpkin or apple picking, getting lost in a corn maze, making Halloween crafts or finding costumes and decorations, we're here to help. 

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