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How to help kids with autism navigate Halloween

OHSU Doernbecher psychologist says preparation, flexibility are the tricks to a safe and happy haunting
Because many people on the autism spectrum process sensory input differently, Halloween can be especially overwhelming. (Getty Images)

Halloween is a great opportunity for children of all ages to express their creativity and personal interests. Full of frights and delights, the spooktacular holiday celebrates diversity, making it a favorite for many kids with developmental disabilities, including those with autism spectrum disorder.

Despite its fun-filled traits, Oct. 31 can be a challenge for autistic individuals and their families.

Lark Huang-Storms, Ph.D. (2012)
Lark Huang-Storms, Ph.D.

“Halloween is one day of the year when normal rules around safe behavior and social interaction are actually expected to be broken,” says Lark Huang-Storms, Ph.D., an assistant professor of pediatrics in the OHSU School of Medicine, and director of the OHSU Autism Program at OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital. “When else do you knock on doors and accept candy from strangers? This can be very confusing to children with autism and may cause some anxiety.”

Because many people on the autism spectrum process sensory input differently, the sights, sounds and smells of the holiday also can be overwhelming. According to Huang-Storms, the best ways to mitigate frightful experiences are through preparation and flexibility:

  • Create a visual social story, using pictures or drawings that outline what your child will experience on Halloween. This may make the day more predictable.
  • Help your child choose a costume that is exciting for them, no matter how unique it may be. Practice wearing it before Halloween to identify any fit or feel issues ahead of the big day. 
  • Consider painting or drawing on pumpkins instead of carving them, if your child is uncomfortable with textures and smells.
  • Take a phased approach to decorating your home, if environmental changes are upsetting. Put up one or two decorations per day together to help your child better adjust to new surroundings.
  • Determine a trick-or-treat route in advance, and conduct a dry run. You may want to target homes with decorations your child doesn’t find scary or those of familiar friends and neighbors.
  • Practice saying “trick-or-treat” in advance. Because social performance can be challenging, don’t insist that your child speak when a door opens on Halloween night. Instead, you – or a sibling – may want to say it with them, or consider making a sign your child can show for the same effect.
  • Make a candy plan so that your child knows how many pieces to take, what to do if they don’t care for what’s offered, and when it may be eaten.

“The most important thing is to create a Halloween environment that fits your child’s comfort level,” says Huang-Storms. “When necessary, let go of the societal definitions of what Halloween fun is supposed to be, and create new traditions unique to your family. The holiday can be a great opportunity to gently nudge your child out of their comfort zone while embracing differences together.”

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