Trick or treating with a neurodivergent child
Halloween is just around the corner! Trick-or-treating is supposed to be an exciting experience for children and their parents, but it can come with stress and worries - especially for parents of neurodivergent children.
1. What does “neurodivergent” mean?
Neurodivergency describes a person whose brain works differently than others in one way or another. This can present as someone on the Autism Spectrum, with ADHD, sensory processing disorder, etc. For parents of children who are neurodivergent, outings like trick-or-treating present unique challenges.
2. What challenges may I face with my neurodivergent child during Halloween / trick or treating?
Difficulty communicating with strangers or other children
Difficulty communicating with caretakers to express wants, needs, and emotions
Difficulty regulating emotions, experiencing sensory overload & feeling overwhelmed
Sensory differences - reluctance to wear a costume, fear of being among crowds of people, aversion to sounds, lights, decorations, etc.
3. How can I prepare my child for a successful night of trick or treating?
Let’s focus on a few specific challenges that many parents and their children may face during trick-or-treat night - communicating, resolving overwhelming or emotionally frustrating situations, and dealing with new/overwhelming sensory situations (don’t worry, trick-or-treating alternatives will be discussed below if trick-or-treat night is something your child has absolutely no interest in!)
Below are some ideas to help your child communicate during trick-or-treat night!
1. Social Stories & Role Play
A social story is a brief “story” that mimics a real-life situation and helps prepare a child for a new situation or experience. A social story can be in the form of a book or a video and gives a child the opportunity to predict what their night will look like and help a child in preparing to communicate effectively.
As an example, here's a link to a social story created by Autism Little Learners ©.
Additional social story videos are easily accessible on YouTube - browse a few videos to find one that may be most interesting and effective for your child.
Role-playing is another way that you can prepare your child for trick-or-treating. In the days before trick-or-treat night, pretend that you are handing out candy and go through the steps of knocking, saying “trick or treat”, accepting a piece of candy or another treat, and then saying “thank you”. If possible, you can even get family and friends or neighbors involved by asking them to help you and your child practice for trick-or-treat night.
2. Practice gestalts and transitions
It is important that a child know what others are expecting them to do or say as they go up to each home, so it is a good idea to practice these exchanges in the days leading up to trick-or-treating. After watching or reading a social story, practice these things with your child during low-stress or pleasant situations (bathtime, bedtime stories, mealtimes, during a walk).
For gestalt language processors, some gestalts you can model prior to the experience are:
That’s a nice costume!
Trick or treat.
Let’s keeping walking
It’s my favorite character.
Have a good night!
Maybe next time.
Time for a break.
Time to go home
Halloween time is filled with decorations, flashing lights, scary noises, and crazy costumes. For many children, these things are exciting, funny, and fun to experience. For other children, these sounds, sights, and feelings are overwhelming and difficult to experience.
So, how can you help your child to have a pleasant experience? Here are some ideas!
If your child becomes overwhelmed by loud or new sounds, consider getting noise-reducing headphones for them to wear while trick-or-treating. They should still be able to hear, but headphones can help to tone the noise down and to allow them to feel more calm
If your child is nervous or averse to the Halloween decorations all over the place, but still wants to go trick-or-treating, try these strategies:
Talk to them about decorations in the days leading up to Halloween, reminding them that they are just for fun, not real, and cannot hurt them. Perhaps look at pictures or videos of Halloween decor so that they have some expectation of what they may see
As you’re walking through the neighborhood, look out for costumes or decorations you feel your child may be extra overwhelmed by (loud noises, scary costumes, flashing lights), and warn them before they walk closer or ask if they would like to skip past that particular house
What about a child who does not want to wear a Halloween costume because they don’t like the way it feels on their body?
Trick-or-treating is meant to be FUN, not stressful. In preparation for Halloween, you could gather some of the clothes you know they love to wear, and alter them slightly to fit the Halloween vibe (i.e. paint a ghost on a comfy t-shirt or some pumpkins on their favorite sweatpants).
If your child doesn’t want to wear a costume or dislikes a costume you thought they would want to wear, let them decide what to wear. Try explaining to them what it means to “dress up” and/or to “pretend to be something/someone else”, and let them interpret what that means.
Alternatives to trick-or-treating
Trick-or-treating is not for everyone, and some families may find that the experience is more stressful than it is fun, given challenges with communication, overwhelming feelings and/or sensory overload. If this is the case for your family, consider these alternative activities!
1. A Halloween “Easter Egg Hunt”
Instead of plastic eggs, fill pumpkins/skeletons/ghosts with candy and hide them throughout the house/yard and hunt for candy together in the comfort of your own home
Click here for a link to Halloween-themed easter eggs… there are plenty more options out there!
Many local churches, community centers and even neighborhood committees organize "trunk and treats" (click here to find one near you), which eliminates the need for children to go from home to home trick-or-treating. Instead of knocking on doors, children can visit the trunks of cars which are typically decorated and filled with candy! This is a great option for a child who fatigues easily and does not want to do tons of walking or a child who feels anxious about knocking on someone’s door.
3. Stay home & distribute candy!
For some children, being in the comfort of their own home while experiencing trick-or- treating could be the perfect solution. If they are nervous about interacting with others, feeling a sensory overload, etc., suggest that they dress up and help mom and dad to pass out candy to others.