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Taking the fear out of Halloween for children with autism

By: Mary Beth Almond | Rochester Post | Published October 27, 2015

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METRO DETROIT — Many children look forward to Halloween each year, but with all of the frightening costumes, eerie decorations, loud noises and flashing lights, it can also be a very overwhelming experience.

Melissa Almanza, a board-certified behavior analyst with the Macomb Oakland Regional Center in Troy, said Halloween can offer a number of challenges for children with autism spectrum disorders. But with the proper preparation and planning, she said, children of all abilities can enjoy the holiday.

Almanza — who has more than 15 years of experience working with kids with ASD — said children with autism typically have social, behavior and communication deficits, as well as a tough time adjusting to changes in routine.

“Holidays and things that involve a lot of different, new routines are typically going to be pretty tough for our kids,” she said. “Keep in mind that every child with autism is different … so some of our kids love it and some of our kids don’t like it at all.”

Autism Alliance of Michigan Program Director Tammy Morris agreed that Halloween can be tricky for many families.

“Parents of kids with autism are, of course, concerned with the idea of bringing their kids door to door because their kids don’t behave, respond and react the way that people expect them to, and people may misinterpret that behavior as rude or ungrateful or odd. So it is sometimes very stressful,” she said.

Morris urges those handing out candy to be open-minded as children of all ages and abilities visit their homes this Halloween.

For example, she said, a child who isn’t wearing a Halloween costume might have sensory issues.

“Our kids have very heightened sensory responses to certain things, so loud noises, surprises and ... wearing things on their head or face, and costumes. Obviously, the costumes tend to not be made from the highest-quality fabrics and tend to be itchy, scratchy, hot or cold. Normal kids have some degree of discomfort in their Halloween costumes, and that’s just really exaggerated for kids on the autism spectrum,” Morris explained.

Almanza said parents of children on the spectrum simply need to be creative when helping their child select a costume, and they should also begin having their child practice wearing it once they have selected an outfit their child is comfortable in.

“Consider what you know agitates them, or what you know they are more willing to tolerate, to make it a comfortable experience for them,” she said. “I’ve done a lot of practice where we start a couple weeks ahead of time and we put it on for 10 seconds, and then a minute the next week and two minutes the week after that, so it’s really just to build up their tolerance for it.”

A child who does not make eye contact or say “trick-or-treat” might be shy or nonverbal, Morris explained.

“Many children with autism have communication deficits — like not making great eye contact, being nonverbal or having issues formulating a verbal response — so they might have memorized or learned how to say ‘trick-or-treat,’ but they may not be able to then have that conversation go on to a question of ‘what are you?’ That back-and-forth questioning might be difficult for them, and it may look like they don’t want to talk or they don’t want to say thank you, depending on their communication skills,” she said.

Children who are nonverbal can still be involved by simply being given a script or holding up a picture.

“Some kids that are just learning how to imitate sounds or speech … can vocally imitate it, so if their parents were to walk up there with them and say it, they can say it after. … We can also use pictures that say something like ‘trick-or-treat,’ where they can show it to people so that they can still participate in the experience, but not necessarily have to have the speech for it,” Almanza said.

Those passing out candy should also know that a child who looks disappointed when eyeing the candy bowl might have food allergies or intolerances.

“Our kids on the spectrum vary from kids who have no stomach issues at all to kids who have very complicated GI issues and food allergies. A lot of our kids on the spectrum have pretty significant aversions to certain types of food, so they might overreact if they think they are going to be asked to eat something they don’t like, or certainly might not be grateful in their limited repertoire of choices,” Morris explained.

Similarly, Morris said, a child who takes a long time to pick out one piece of candy might have issues with motor planning, while one who grabs multiple pieces of candy might have poor fine motor skills.

Some children with special needs, Almanza said, adapt better to more structured activities like a trunk-or-treat event or trick-or-treating in a small, gated neighborhood.

“A lot of our kids tend to have issues with elopement, which is just a fancy word for running away, so I think parents can be a little nervous. When there are so many people out and kids are in costumes, there can be some anxiety that their children might be more likely to be distracted by something and go toward it or to kind of get lost in the crowd,” she said.

Parents can ease their minds by keeping within an arm’s length of their children, holding their hand or having their kids sit in a wagon.

“If you know your child gets easily distracted or easily overwhelmed and tends to run, have a plan in advance for that,” Almanza explained.

Morris also urged residents to remember that age isn’t the best measure for who should be able to participate in the holiday.

“The key is, kids who might seem bigger or older, developmentally might be a much younger child. … (Trick-or-treating) is a skill, and it’s something that people might have worked for many years on, getting that cooperation and comfort level to do that — I think that crosses all disabilities, not just autism,” she added.

Although having a successful and stress-free Halloween can take a lot of preparation, Almanza said it is really beneficial because it allows those with varying abilities to get involved and practice new skills.

“I try to say let’s practice early and practice often — whether that is involving putting your costume on; whether that’s practicing knocking, because some of our kids have fine motor skill issues; or saying trick-or-treat; or holding up a card — because preparation and planning and practice are going to be the things that help our kids in general with anything, whether it’s Halloween or back to school or anything else,” she said. “If our kids know what is coming next, even a new routine like Halloween or Christmas can become a little bit less anxiety-provoking for them. And if we can keep the anxiety down, a lot of times we are going to be able to keep the behavior down as well.”