For a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), celebrations, festivities and holidays can be very overwhelming. Let's face it, they can be overwhelming to the average person. But the chaos, audio and visual stimuli, and increase in human interaction that these occasions bring about can cause elevated amounts of anxiety and stress to a child with ASD. These heightened emotions can manifest into behavioral (e.g., an exacerbation of repetitious verbal and motor behavior) and physiologic changes (e.g., increase in heart rate and adrenaline), which can be eliminated, reduced or managed with the right preparation.
Halloween is one of the most anticipated holidays for mainstream children. Ghosts, goblins, witches and jack-o'-lanterns can represent an alternate reality that can take a child in the spectrum out of their comfort zone. Even the seemingly simple and exciting task of dressing up like one's favorite character can add discomfort, frustration and ultimately, stress. Add to it the overabundance of candy, scary sounds of howling, wind and the shocking "BOO!" that is sure to be delivered, and you have a recipe for possible behavioral dysregulation. To the average child, the anticipation and excitement reigns. To a child with ASD, the preparation must prevail.
Here are some tips for preparing a child in the spectrum for participation in the festivities of Halloween:
The Costume: Allow choice making regarding the costume. Ensure that there is active agreement regarding what costume will be worn. Understand your child's own sensory considerations and ensure that the costume does not pose a sensory challenge. Also, consider your child's allergies and ensure you do not introduce a costume that may provoke an allergic reaction (e.g., latex, or make-up). At least one week before Halloween, you will want to "rehearse" putting the costume on and walking around the house with it on. This will allow you to rule-in or rule-out any of the issues mentioned above.The Dark Neighborhood: At least one week before Halloween, "rehearse" walking in the neighborhood, in the dark, with a flashlight (if the intention is to go out in the evening). Pre-teach the entire Trick-or-Treat sequence:
- Approach a house.
- Knock on a door or approach an open door.
- Select one piece of candy, or treat (this can be challenging since children are not often presented with an entire bowl of candy and asked to select just one).
- Saying thank you for the treat.
- Follow the flashlight to the next house (again, if dark outside during the house visits).
Watch You Tube videos of other children going through the trick-or-treat sequence, like this one for instance: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BXvkVLCDdxs
The Candy: Of course there will be a desire to eat the candy. You will want to set expectations in advance. One way to manage the request is to create a narrative (a story) that you will review with your child a few days prior to the event. In addition, you can use a timing device your child can wear or hold in their pocket. A device that sounds an alarm or vibrates will signal the time for a "gobbling goblin" break.
The Unfamiliar: Use a scout. If your child is fearful of pets or other people's costumes and masks, you will want to have someone with you approach the door and scout the circumstances before sending your child to someone's home.
The Support: Your child may be highly motivated during this activity, in consequence, ensure that you bring along any communication supports (e.g., Proloquo2Go, Picture Exchange Communication System) so you and your child can use the opportunity for communicating.