Halloween can spook just about everyone.
For children with autism, however, Halloween can be especially difficult.
According to the Autism Support Network, most autistic children do not understand the concept of make-believe. Children with autism can also feel over-stimulated.
For Robin Sweet of Scottsdale, founder of Gateway Academy, the latter was her son’s biggest challenge when he was younger. Her son, who has Asperger’s syndrome, is now 26.
“It was the over-stimulation with the kids running around on the street,” Sweet said. “He really didn’t understand that.”
“The spooky decorations that some people have where somebody will jump out of a container or something and scare the bejesus out of him, those were the things that ended our trick-or-treating,” she added. “It was cut short for sure.”
“They don’t like surprises,” Sweet said. “They want to know exactly what to expect.”
According to Tara S. Boyd, speech-language pathologist and executive director of Ally Pediatric Therapy located in northern Scottsdale, each autistic child reacts differently.
Because children with autism have sensory issues, Sweet recommends parents have their children try on their costume before Halloween.
“You don’t want to find out on Halloween the costume is too scratchy and they won’t wear it,” Sweet said.
Boyd suggests parents have their child wear the costume for a few minutes each day and increase the time slowly over several days.
The child can also practice trick-or-treating around the house or around the neighborhood prior to the holiday.
“Sometimes you can get neighbors to participate and let them come up to the door and ring the doorbell and have them open the door,” Sweet said.
Boyd added that if practicing indoors, parents can have the child walk to different bedrooms in the home and knock on those doors.
“Ask them questions some adults might ask, like, ‘What are you dressed up as?’” Sweet said. “Our kids are very black-and-white, so they might say, ‘Well, you idiot, can’t you tell who I am?’” she says laughing. “[Tell them], ‘No, don’t say that! Just be very kind.’”
The general rule of thumb is to prepare your child early to help them understand the concept of Halloween.
“There are a lot of cute Halloween books talking about trick-or-treating parents can start reading to children well before the holiday,” Boyd said.
One book Boyd recommends is “Pete the Cat: Trick or Pete.”
Parents can also practice Halloween vocabulary, like “pumpkin,” “costume,” “trick or treat” and “boo.”
It’s equally as important that parents with neurotypical children prepare their kids as well.
“Oftentimes, it’s not obvious if a child has autism,” Boyd said.
“Sometimes a child might talk to a child with autism and the child doesn’t respond,” she said. “Let your child know that sometimes other children can’t or don’t want to talk. That’s okay.”
Sweet said parents should be sensitive to the fact children with autism are just excited and sometimes that excitement can look wild.
“It’s just over-stimulation,” Sweet said. “Be kind and ask them if they want to walk with them – just like kid common sense that you would do with any other child.”
Even if parents do all they can to prepare their child with autism for Halloween, know that unexpected things can and will likely happen.
“Parents should go into the holiday with this in mind,” Boyd said. “Parents need to be flexible and go with the flow. If your child seems overwhelmed, keep it short and sweet. Go to a few houses and then go home.”