Black, orange, and purple colors stream all over schools, neighborhoods and city streets. Friendly or scary monsters line store windows and shops along with flashing spooky eyeballs and cackling witches. That unrestricted excitement of a night filled with costumes, friends. family and bucket-loads of candy. On Halloween night, the unexpected and expected combine and for a child with ADHD, Autism, or SPD (Sensory Processing Disorder) the results are…overwhelming. Overstimulating. Anxiety-filled. Enough to cause a child who is normally very excited for Halloween to retreat into a secluded shell.
Sensory processing disorder frequently accompanies an ADHD diagnosis, meaning many children are also combatting sensory issues that can invoke anxiety, angry outbursts or other “undesired” behaviors from children such as becoming aggressive, hitting, kicking or biting. Sensory triggers could include things like flashing lights, loud noises, crowds of people, strangers with masks or disguises, feeling scared, strong smells, being touched, itchy or tight-fitting clothing or foreign items on the skin or head such as makeup, stickers, masks, wigs, hats, bows or headbands. Therefore, when we look at a holiday like Halloween, it is easy to see why a child with ADHD, Autism, or SPD might easily become overstimulated.
Understanding how a child with specific sensory needs functions and processes their life is crucial to helping them to enjoy holidays like Halloween or similar-themed parties at school, camp, or other events. Here are some tips for helping a child with special sensory needs have a holiday that is not filled with overwhelming stimuli and anxiety!
The Costume Dilemma
As mentioned, sometimes kids with sensory difficulties may not take to a typical Halloween costume that is complete with masks, wigs or fancy makeup due to sensory-sensitivities. It is recommended when selecting a Halloween costume for a child with ADHD, Autism, or SPD that fabric and accessories are taken into consideration. For example, is that fuzzy, warm character costume and face mask going to make your child too hot or feel enclosed or trapped? Will they be able to wear a face mask to complete the outfit or is the feel of something tight on their face too overwhelming? For children who have selected such costumes such as a fairy or princess, are they going to be ok with wearing a crown, fake jewelry and/or makeup on their faces to complete their “look” and if not, are they ok with the costume not having those features?
Tricks to Choosing Costumes for a Child with ADHD, Autism or SPD
Keep it Simple! Try to avoid costumes with too many “extras” such as wigs or jewelry that might inspire a sensory overload.
Real vs Fake Makeup/Face Paint - Sometimes substituting real makeup for fake makeup or face paint is a better option for sensory-sensitive children. Fake makeup or paint can often feel tight or itchy on the skin, whereas real makeup is meant to be far more gentle. Bonus, little girls love to wear their mommy’s makeup!
Substitute wherever necessary - If that princess costume calls for plastic high heels and you know your child won’t like the feel of those on her feet (or walking all night in them!), try finding flat ballet shoes with glitter or jewels on them, instead. Or perhaps a cool cape on the back of a costume might be a great substitute for the mask meant to be worn on the face?
- Find costumes with their needs in mind - If your child despises things on their head or hands, definitely don’t look at costumes with wigs, hats or gloves! Or vice versa, if they do like their hands covered, try to find a costume that incorporates wearing gloves with it. The more comfortable the child feels in their costume, the better a time trick-or-treating they will have! Have your child try on the entire costume several times before the actual night of Halloween to help identify any issues needed to help the child adjust to the costume beforehand. Just like practicing any new skill, the more they do it the easier it will become!
Facing these realistic issues ahead of time ensures you help pick out a costume your child can wear without experiencing sensory issues and also helps curb any meltdowns that may occur when putting on their costume Halloween night!
Trick-or-Treat Tips & Tricks
Part of having a child with ADHD, Autism and/or Sensory Processing Disorder is the constant need to be ten steps ahead when planning events. For Halloween night in particular, there’s going to be a lot of walking, movement, crowds of people, strangers in masks and costumes, and in general, sensory overload. Keep this in mind when choosing the neighborhood and planning out how the time block of trick-or-treating will go. Here are some other tips for planning a successful night of candy-binging (aka trick-or-treat!):
Choose a place that’s either less crowded for trick-or-treating or has areas that you can walk away with your child for a sensory break if needed. A few minutes to walk down a road not filled with masked kids or adults might be just what your child needs to regroup and return to the fun of collecting candy
Know your child’s activity level. If they are a child who gets exhausted or worn out easily, plan to bring a wagon or stroller for them to take a break. An exhausted, overstimulated child does not lead to a good situation for anyone!
Keep in mind your child’s limits. For example, if you know your child gets overwhelmed by flashing lights and loud noises, avoid the houses with these types of decorations outdoors or the haunted house at the end of the street
- If your child is hyperactive and tends to get too far ahead of the group of simply can’t calm down to the sensory stimulation, bring a fidget spinner or other gadget to keep their hands and mind busy and focused. These items exist to help slow down the constantly-active brain of a child with ADHD and allow them to better focus and listen to directions, such as staying with their parents for safety.
Holidays like Halloween with overwhelming stimuli and excitement can be difficult to combat for children with ADHD, Autism and/or a sensory disorder. However, this doesn’t mean children and families with these needs cannot have fun! Keeping the child’s needs at the forefront ensures they will not become overloaded or overstimulated and if they do, you have an exit strategy to help them regroup. Let’s help our children have the best possible Halloween this week by planning ahead for their needs!
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Ashley Lavoie is a mom of 3 and manages both child and adult ADHD and Neonatal Diabetes. She is advocating for awareness and loves writing and connecting with other families like hers.
Editor's note: This information is not meant to diagnose or treat and should not take the place of personal consultation, as needed, with a qualified healthcare provider and/or BCBA.