Halloween for Autistic Kids
I LOVE Halloween. It is absolutely my favorite holiday. I love dressing up, watching old horror movies, and decorating my house with macabre details (if I’m honest, that’s year-round, but I digress). But when I was a kid, sometimes Halloween was a swirl of brightly colored costumes, weird masks, WAY too many people, and everyone trying to scare me when I was already pretty freaked out. This holiday can be rough on autistic children, but it doesn’t have to be. Here are my best tips for creating a great Halloween for autistic kids.
It’s All About the Overwhelm
Like every holiday, the key to getting an autistic person of any age through Halloween is to avoid the dreaded overwhelm! While this holiday doesn’t have the big family gatherings you get with Thanksgiving and Christmas, Halloween has its own peculiar hazards. A lot of Halloween festivities take place in the dark, which can be frightening for some kids. Not only is everyone in costume, many of those costumes are designed to be especially frightening, and there’s a big emphasis on scaring throughout the celebrations. This is a lot to deal with when your sensory processing system is quirky.
Lots of autistic people – kids and adults alike – LOVE costumes and dressing up. A lot of us go into cosplay as we grow up, so as to have another outlet for our love of playing dress-up. We often feel like we’re “in costume” as we move through the world every day, anyway.
When choosing costumes for autistic kids, make sure the costumes are comfortable and non-irritating. Tags can be cut out, of course, but also let your child feel the material. Packaged costumes are often made of cheap polyester, scratchy tulle, or rough faux fur, any of which may be a Bad Feel for your child. If you’re a fast crafter, making your kid’s costume would allow you to control all the materials involved. If not, let your child be your guide as to what feels good to them.
Be especially careful about masks, face paint, and cheap Halloween greasepaint makeup. A lot of us are doubly picky about stuff touching our faces, and autistic kids may get overloaded by the feeling of a mask or drying face paint quickly. If their chosen costume needs something on their face, try to do it with regular drugstore makeup; the formulas are designed to be comfortable and it will probably be easier to tolerate.
This, of course, is the Big Question. Can autistic kids go trick-or-treating? Like all things, it depends on the kid, but I say that, with the right accommodations, any autistic kid can do anything they want to. It’s more a question of how much can they handle and how can you give them the best experience.
For traditional trick-or-treating, consider timing and geography. Would it be easier on your child to go early, either to avoid the crowds or to avoid being out in the dark? How much of your neighborhood can your child handle without getting overtired? You might want to scout out your neighborhood for the best streets and set a limit on how many blocks you try – remember, you still have to make the trip back home! While you’re scouting out, see if there are any houses with really intense decoration that might be overstimulating for an autistic child, and make a note to stay away from them.
School carnivals are another option that might suit autistic kids better. They’re generally well-lit, avoiding issues with fear of the dark and people jumping out at you. Everything is in a limited space, so you don’t have to worry about walking tiring your child out. Some schools even put limits on how scary kids’ costumes can be. However, there are some downsides to carnivals. There’s usually a lot more activity, like games and music, and a lot more people in that smaller space. If you’re considering a carnival, you may want to check out my tips for navigating festivals while autistic.
Another option is the trunk-or-treat. Personally, I don’t endorse these because I think they cheapen Halloween and water it down to the brink of pointlessness. That said, these events are almost always held before sundown, there’s limited activity and limited decoration, and often they even ban scary costumes. They are very controlled environments, and if your autistic child needs that, this could be a good way for them to get to participate in Halloween.
Hayrides, Haunted Houses, and Mazes, Oh My!
There are other Halloween activities, of course – the classic haunted house, hayrides, and corn mazes, just to name a few. Let me be clear: some kids, NT or autistic, LOVE these things and are GREAT with them, while other kids, autistic or NT, can’t deal with them. It’s all very personal. As for myself, I hate all of these. I don’t enjoy jump scares, which are the main focus of haunted houses, etc. Sometimes they’re also about gore, which I don’t care for, either.
In my opinion, all kids under 13 should be kept out of haunted houses, hayrides, and corn mazes, but that’s my parenting decision and it doesn’t mean anything to you. You know your kids best. The one thing I will say is please don’t push your kids to participate if they’re scared!
Also, if you can find a “haunted” activity aimed at younger children, that might be more appropriate for an autistic child.
Talk About the Fantasy Element Beforehand
Halloween is the only holiday with the potential to induce nightmares (not counting the terrifying mall Easter bunnies), so it’s important to prepare autistic kids for what goes on. Talk about costumes and dressing up, and explain that the scary things they might see aren’t real, but just people in suits. This video from Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood might be especially helpful – it was great for me when I was little.
A Quick Word on “Blue Pumpkins”
I’ve recently seen some posts on social media about autistic adults trick-or-treating carrying blue pumpkin pails to denote themselves as autistic adults. The posts suggest that even though they look like adults, they should be treated as children. I don’t like the implication that autistic people should be infantilized – although I love the idea of making trick-or-treating accessible to all adults who want to join in. If you see these posts, please don’t share them around. But if you want to go out trick-or-treating as an adult with a blue pumpkin, go for it! Please come drop me a comment and let me know how it went!
Also, I want to remind people about the Teal Pumpkin Project, which uses teal pumpkins by the door to indicate that a house offers allergy-friendly candy or other non-food goodies for trick-or-treaters. As so many autistic people have food aversions and sensitivities, I feel this should be close to our hearts as well.
What does your family do for Halloween? How do you make it inclusive and fun for everyone without being overwhelming? When I was growing up, I was only allowed to go to school carnivals – anyone else? Do you have any recommendations for allergy-friendly goodies for those who’d like to participate in the Teal Pumpkin Project? And Bonus Question: What’s your favorite Halloween movie? Mine is The Nightmare Before Christmas, which I start watching on October 1 and continue all month long. #Stimtober