Little ghosts, goblins, and all sorts of costumes characters will soon descend on neighborhoods across the country on Halloween night. For children coping with special needs, Halloween can be a lot of fun.
The Episcopal Center for Children, a nonprofit organization providing therapeutic and special education services to children ages 5-14 in the greater Washington, D.C. area, offers parents and guardians some tips for supporting children coping with special needs.
“It’s always important to keep safety in mind, especially if you are the parent or guardian of a child coping with special needs,” said Dodd White, president and CEO of ECC. “When we talk about safety, we are not just talking about physical safety. We are also talking about emotional safety. It’s a busy time with a lot of fun and people have high expectations for how it should go. We encourage parents and guardians to think ahead about what is best for their child and make a plan.”
Tip 1: Pick a costume with safety and your child’s interests in mind. Your child’s Halloween costume should be visible in the dark and nonflammable. Reflective tape can be added to homemade and purchased costumes to make them more visible.
Tip 2: Factor your child’s interests into the costume selection. He or she may like a particular character and want to pretend to be that character. Their interests offer a great opportunity for learning. Read a book together about the character, watch a TV show or movie, or look up information online and talk about it. Prepare your child to explain what their costume is.
Tip 3: Make sure the costume is comfortable for your child. It’s important your child have a costume that he or she can walk and move in. Children with sensitivities may not like certain types of fabrics, ties or masks. If your child is sensitive to fabrics and you want to purchase a costume, try to go to a store where you can touch the material the costume is made out of, instead of ordering online. Plan extra time to find a costume if your child is sensitive. Or make the costume instead at home using fabrics and materials your child is comfortable with. Long capes or costumes may need to be shortened so children don’t trip.
Tip 4: Try on the costume before Halloween night and modify if needed. Make sure your child can walk, see and move around in the costume. Decide which shoes to wear and put them on with the costume. Practice walking and holding the treat bag while wearing the costume to simulate how things will go on Halloween night. Taking a walk around your home or the block a few days before Halloween can be a way to road test the costume and check for problems. If you have doubts about whether your child can tolerate the costume for an event, bring along an old one or something soft and comfortable that can be changed into if needed.
Tip 5: Use the buddy system. Younger children will need an adult to accompany them. If you feel your older child with special needs can trick-or-treat independently, you may want to pair him or her with a responsible older sibling or friend.
Tip 6: Use technology to stay in touch. If your child has a cellphone and is trick-or-treating independently from you, make sure it is charged and carried for trick-or-treating.
Tip 7: Talk with your child in advance about Halloween. Goblins, ghosts, haunted houses, scary sounds and other Halloween displays can frighten some children. Speak with your child in advance about Halloween and prepare him or her for what they will see. Practice self-calming skills with your child ahead of time in case they get scared or overwhelmed.
Tip 8: Know what kind of treats your child can eat and talk ahead about how to handle treats. Many children with sensitivities and disabilities are allergic to various types of food. Make sure you know in advance what he or she can eat, and set up ground rules for eating. Talk with your child about how to respond if offered something he or she cannot eat.
Tip 9: Reduce anxiety by giving your child a schedule for special activities. A written schedule, or one with pictures for younger children, can help your child feel calmer and safer. Discuss the schedule in advance and tell your child what will happen at each event (e.g. outside/inside, loud/quiet, crowded/not crowded). Review the plan before leaving your home.
Tip 10: Have a code word your child can use if he or she feels overwhelmed and needs a break. Events like Halloween can be overstimulating. It can feel overwhelming to a child, even a child that is having fun. Giving your child some control can lower anxiety. If your child uses the code word, remove your child from the stressful situation for a few moments. Take a break and use or talk about coping and self-calming skills.