Halloween Tips for Kids With Sensory Issues

How to make Halloween fun—while avoiding overstimulation—for autistic kids and children with sensory processing issues.

Mom and daughter sit at a table and paint pumpkins

Sergey Narevskih/Stocksy

Every fall, St. Louis-based dad, Mark Joseph, helps his 6-year-old autistic daughter prepare for Halloween. The holiday can be difficult for her because she has sensory issues. But Joseph and his wife have found that it helps to discuss in advance how to handle what their daughter may encounter that day.

“I sat down with my daughter a few weeks before Halloween, and we talked about what to expect and potential triggers she might experience, like people in costumes, loud noises, and bright lights,” says Joseph, who runs Parental Queries, a platform providing resources and support to parents. 

Then they brainstorm solutions that could work for her. This year that includes letting his daughter choose her own costume. That ensures she’s comfortable and avoids any potential meltdowns on Halloween, adds Joseph. 

For children with sensory processing issues, traditional Halloween celebrations can lead to overstimulation. Autistic kids, for example, often have difficulties processing sensory information and “experience the world in their own unique ways,” says Matt Edelstein, Psy.D., BCBA-D, a psychologist and behavior analyst at the Kennedy Krieger Institute. “They may rush to engage with certain activities of high interest, or they might run and avoid unexpected sounds or lights. For these reasons, Halloween can be both an exciting and scary time for these children." 

That doesn’t mean children with sensory issues can’t enjoy the fall holiday. Robin Hornstein, Ph.D., a psychotherapist based in Narberth, Pennsylvania, always tells parents that everything can be adjusted, including holidays like Halloween. It just takes a bit of preparation and planning activities your child will respond well to. "You can predict what is coming and engage them in their interest," explains Dr. Hornstein.

Instead of avoiding Halloween, here are a few things experts say to keep in mind when celebrating if your child has a sensory issue.

Create a Halloween Schedule

Creating a clear activity schedule allows for predictability, which can help children with sensory processing challenges feel more secure. A Halloween plan can include which houses to visit (and which to avoid), what tools to take in case of something unexpected (e.g. comfort items or noise-canceling earphones), and an exit strategy to end the activity, suggests Dr. Edelstein.

If you want to try and plan something new this year, that can be OK—as long as you know what to do if you notice your child can’t handle the change. "Newer experiences should be approached more slowly, with a plan for opting out at the first signs of overwhelm,” says Dr. Edelstein.

But for some kids, too much advanced planning could create more challenges than benefits, as they may have difficulty being flexible if things do not follow the schedule perfectly. That’s why it’s important, says Dr. Edelstein, for parents to not only create a plan but also explain it in a way that helps their child feel most at ease.

"Parents and caregivers are experts in their children and often know which type of environments predict the most success," he says. “Exactly how that plan is communicated depends on their experience and expertise in their child.”

Plan a Trick-or-Treating Route

For some children with more significant sensory or behavioral concerns, Dr. Edelstein suggests creating a predictable and limited trick-or-treat route with stops within the home or between a few close neighbors. 

"For other children who have more experience and comfort with community outings, trick-or-treating may involve exploring the route ahead of time,” adds Dr. Edelstein. That could mean walking the trick or treat route before Halloween night to see how it feels for the child. Practice what happens if your child says they are ready to stop. Take note of how far from home you are, and plan to have a car nearby if you have one and think you will need it. 

Be Mindful of Costumes

When it comes to costumes, masks, and face-painting, experts say it’s best to follow your child’s lead. Dr. Edelstein explains that some children with sensory issues may love to wear face masks, while others find them uncomfortable. Each child is different. So, it’s important to adjust to your child’s needs. This might involve shifting away from traditional expectations and thinking creatively. 

A child who experiences discomfort when certain new textures touch their skin might feel better if costume elements are secured to comfortable clothing (e.g. a tail clipped onto the back of their shirt). For children that are bothered by having their faces painted, parents might consider skipping that component altogether; face paint can feel like an intrusive process for an individual with sensory issues.

Sharon Kaye-O'Connor, LCSW, a NYC-based psychotherapist working with autistic and neurodivergent populations, is also the parent of a child with sensory issues. She says if you know a costume your child is wearing may feel uncomfortable or itchy, plan for them to wear the costume over soft, sensory-friendly clothing. And if your child is sensitive to sound, continues Kaye-O'Connor, perhaps consider adding ear defenders to the costume.

Make Adjustments

Along with letting his daughter decide what to dress up as for Halloween,  Joseph and his family also adjust other plans accordingly. “For example, if she gets overwhelmed by people in costumes, we plan on staying home or going to a friend's house where she feels comfortable. If loud noises are an issue, we try to find quieter Halloween events to attend,” he says.

Adjustments like these, even if they break away from the way other people around you celebrate Halloween, could make all the difference for your child. Dr. Hornstein agrees. Going out in the dark, with lots of people, can be too much for some children, shes says, and if that’s the case for your kid, opt to take them trick-or-treating earlier in the day, whether that’s at local stores, homes on your block, or a grandparent's apartment building. And if your child is picky about candy, she suggests giving them a basket filled with their favorite treats. You can swap it after they trick or treat to avoid them being triggered by candy they don’t like.

And if your child would do better celebrating Halloween at home, that’s not a reason to worry. You can plan activities you know your child will enjoy together as a family. Consider watching a fun Halloween movie that you know your child likes, decorating cookies, or maybe even a Halloween treasure hunt around the house.

Plan for Issues at Home, Too

Remember, kids are likely coming to ring your bell too and constant ringing can be hard for some children. Dr. Hornstein says you might do well covering the doorbell with some tape to avoid it being pushed. Or she suggests having an adult stand with the child outside greeting people a bit further from the door so that they won't be startled by the constant ringing.

The Bottom Line

Sensory issues don’t have to stop a child from enjoying Halloween. The key is for caregivers to be flexible with what it means to celebrate, and to lean into programming that is predictable and within the child's range of previous experiences.

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