Halloween Tips for the Sensory Sensitive Child

Getting ready to trick-or-treat? Costumes, makeup, baskets or bags for candy and all sounds like lots of fun, but for the sensory child it is likely to be a challenge.

You know your child best, so figure out what might cause the most sensory stress so that you can modify accordingly.

Prepare your child in advance by having a conversation in which you mention the fun involved in Halloween. Make a plan together that allows your child to enjoy these festivities, considering your child's sensory issues, worries, and the nature of this occasion. Allow your child to make choices as to costume, makeup, and what environment(s) he/she would most like to participate in. This way, your child will be involved from the start, prepared for the occasion, and have a plan to follow that will take away some anxiety. Here are some tips.

Making a Plan: If planning to go house to house, predetermine the route and the time you will go trick-or-treating. Keep it familiar, not too long, and close to home. Having your child keep track of time, and warning him/her on the different stages of the plan as you go, will help everyone keep it together. Make sure you have a quiet, low-stimulation place at hand where he/she can avoid sensory overload and regroup, if needed.

If planning to attend a party, familiarize your child with the venue (school, house, etc.). Prepare for the noise and excitement levels of other people that may be encountered. Discuss one or two strategies to use if your child is feeling overwhelmed, such as asking for help, seeking out a quiet space or room, or stepping outside with an adult.

Dressing Up: It’s a good idea to make children’s costumes with their own clothes that they are already comfortable with and that will not be irritating because of their texture, smell or style. Be creative and have fun diving into the closet; you’ll be surprised how amazing a costume can emerge.

Making a Face: Makeup can sometimes be irritating or uncomfortable to children, so if you will apply makeup, make sure you try it in advance to make sure your child will be okay with it. Take care not to impair vision, which could also affect  balance and movement and can be dangerous.

Add wigs, hats, scarves and other elements as much as your child is comfortable with. When in doubt, try it in advance. Hair paint may be a more comfortable option for some.

Staying Calm: Teaching your child to read his/her body for alarms or signs of distress, as well as active and passive methods of keeping and regaining control to avoid meltdowns, are always important.

Activities that deliver strong sensory input to the muscles and joints are always calming and organizing and should be used before going out trick-or-treating and when you return. These activities include:

  • Jumping, running, dancing or biking around safely. 
  • Sucking gelatin through a straw, chewing on ice, or brushing teeth and gums for oral-motor input.
  • Pushing, carrying, lifting and pulling heavy loads.
  • Having your child tense and release his or her muscles and take deep breaths.

 Remember your plan: Keep to daily routines as much as possible, including bedtime. You know how significant changes to your child's routine can cause distress.

 A number of programs on the market can aid you in preparing your child for challenging situations that can be brought on by this and other holidays.

  • Sensory Stories® can be used to teach children the expected behaviors and coping strategies for the environment in which they will be participating.
  • Sleep’n Sync offers a variety of programs that may also be of help in keeping your child calm and relieving the stress of the holiday.
  • Sensory Diets help keep children in the calm alert state needed to be flexible and calm. For more information go to Autism Interventions, page 109.

Keep in mind that Halloween can be used as the right challenge/occasion to talk about fears and how to manage them, if you so wish to do so. Even if you don't celebrate it, you can use some other dress-up festivities to have your child overcome fears about new sensations, have the experience, and be confident that he or she can do it—one step at a time.

Carolyn Murray-Slutsky, MS OTR, C/NDT

Betty Paris, PT, MEd, C/NDT


STAR Services

Authors of:

Autism Interventions, Exploring the Spectrum of Autism, 2nd Edition

Is It Sensory or Is It Behavior, Intervention Strategies