Sensory Friendly Halloween Guide

I know it is a little early for Halloween -- but trust me, regardless of whether or not you are thinking of it, your kids are.  And, my blog is going to be dedicated to the 30 SPD Stories in 30 Days for the entire month of October, so now is the time to post this! 

Halloween is another one of those holidays that requires special planning when it comes to having a kiddo with SPD. Technically, I can’t think of many holidays that don’t require some kind of planning on my part…maybe Veteran’s Day? (Actually, that is a NO, because my father served in Vietnam and my boys are concerned that we honor him appropriately, so I don’t even get to take that holiday off. Ugh.)

All of that aside, my kids love Halloween. Which has made me start to like it too. : )  So much so, that we already have their costumes for this year -- they are in the box still right here in my office, just DYING to be tried on.  But, I say it is too early to take the chance they will ruin them (I am mean like that), so I am forced to use a photo from last Halloween.  I am SHOCKED at how much older they look!  I know, kids grow up, but in the chaos of my life, I must have missed it. 

But, my kiddos really do LOVE Halloween!  I don’t think it is just the candy (especially since we don’t eat it, but I’ll get to that in a minute), I think it is being up past bedtime, running around with their friends in the dark while pretending to be, this year, a Clone (from Star Wars, Nick), an Army Solider (Gabriel) and...well...Matt says he is wearing Lightning McQueen again, but we'll see.

This guide is aimed at those of us who actually want to have a Halloween, similar (not exactly) to the one we grew up loving. There are obviously better ways to handle sensory overload if your child can't do this (example being go to a friend's house so out of the way no one will ring their doorbell).

That said, here is what we do to make sure that Halloween is a success for everyone at our house.

Costumes: This is one of the harder parts for some families. The more sensitive your child is to fabrics, tags, and seams, the more you should aim towards homemade costumes. Take what they actually like to wear, and figure out how to make it into something else. Sweats? Give them a lab coat and a stethoscope for a doctor (or vet, so they can carry their stuffed animal!). Another way is picking a costume that they are SO OVER THE MOON about that they will wear it. My kids can be surprisingly tolerant. Or, my favorite, scrap the costume idea and let them go as themselves. There are DOZENS of book characters out there like the boy on "Diary of a Whimpy Kid” or “Junie B. Jones” or “Hubie” (from Black Lagoon Series). Pick a regular kid from your child’s favorite book, and there you go—instant costume no scratchy things required. : ) Follow your child’s lead on this. Every kid is different and you can have a great Halloween regardless of the costume.

Manage Expectations: This means my expectations and theirs. Ground rules are a must for our family. When I was a kid it was more of a free-for-all candy excursion aimed at garnering the most high end candy bars possible (no crappy raisins; BONUS for full sized candy bars). For my kids, it is about the adventure of visiting the neighbors at night. They know ahead of time there will be LIMITED CANDY (I can’t say no candy, I mean, it is Halloween).

Make a Plan for the DAY not just NIGHT: The kids are going to be ready to go Trick Or Treating at approximately 6:13am when they wake up Sunday morning. But, shockingly, Halloween doesn’t officially start then. Give them a specific plan for the day—breakfast, Halloween-themed morning cartoons, free play time, pumpkin craft, lunch, Halloween movie, snack, free play time, dinner, costume on, double check everyone in the family is ready, and go. A plan for the entire day will ease the stress for them and in turn you. I encourage you to make a visual checklist for the day's plan (like a story board, with pictures in list format). This will help keep stress down during the day for everyone.

Proprioception: You knew that was comin’, huh?  But, I am going to say it again:  Get some heavy work in! Make sure their bodies are not already over-stimulated. Don’t go to 4 parties, do the corn maze, get their photos taken and then expect them to eat dinner and go Trick or Treating. Keep the day simple and focus on at home activities. Do a Halloween movie, and use a weighted vest or heavy blanket, give them orange yogurt through a straw, or black and orange playdoh to squeeze and cut. Do this throughout the day. (Here is my list of other sensory diet ideas for home). My aim is 20 minutes per hour. Crazy, I know. But ya gotta aim at something!

Full Belly Before Trick Or Treating: I think getting my kids to eat before we head out is of the UTMOST importance. They need full bellies. We accomplish this by having a neighborhood Pot Luck in the front yard before the Trick Or Treating begins. Not everyone can do this, but the premise is still the same. Feed them lots of carbs (rice if you are GFCF) and protein. Limit the sugars, even natural ones like fruit. We need them to have energy so they don’t crash three houses down and make me shove all three of them into the wagon and pull them home.  It's happened.

Plan Your Route: Our plan is rarely to stay out as late as possible or to go to as many houses as possible. We focus on our neighborhood (we have about 75 houses) and we have had to work up to that number. When the kids were younger, it was just our cul-de-sac. Make sure your kids are clear on where you plan to go, and if they are old enough, take a trip around your route (on foot or by car) before the big night when they are calmer and can see first hand what they will be doing.

Plan Your Return Home BEFORE You Go: You need to have a game plan for the “Let Down Meltdown” as I so lovingly refer to it these days. When they get home, what is the plan? What time will it be? How long before bed? How much candy can they have? You need a plan; the kids need to know it, and you NEED TO FOLLOW IT. Don’t get caught up in the “I know we said we’d be home by 9, but Suzie-O wants us to do one more street with her, and the boys really want to….” Bad. Bad. Bad. I’m telling you now, STICK with your gut. If you want to scrap the plan on a different night for no reason go for it, but don’t have a crazy-ramped up-nighttime-candy-induced-moment-of-delirium when you all of a sudden think your kids “can handle it”. You are NOT Suzie-O and her kids are NOT your kids. Your family functions better when there is a plan and you follow it. Go home.

Go Prepared: When you are leaving the house, make sure everyone is prepared! We send them with flashlights and easy to carry cloth pumpkins for collecting candy with their name embroidered on it so we don't get confused (or anxious and have a total meltdown over "HE HAS MY CANDY"...which of course happens anyway). We leave all of the extra pieces of the costume at home (this year that will include the Clone 'blaster' and the Lightning McQueen ear-mounted mic -- If I even still know where it is...). And, no matter the costume, WARM clothing and tennis shoes for running (often this means layers UNDER the costume, their favorite sweats are good).

Now Prepare the Adults: My hubby and I get prepared too—good shoes for us, we pull the wagon pre-stocked with fish crackers, tortilla chips, juice boxes and/or water bottles, grab the camera, and a backpack (in case your child does end up insisting on bringing the whistle, the helmet AND their favorite stuffed animal, you can manage while still snapping photos in the pitch dark). The wagon is KEY for us (you can use a stroller or bike trailer or whatever you have). They will need a break. This is a LOT of sensory stimulation, especially in the DARK, so let them stop and have a snack--and take a ride. If it isn’t raining, blankets and stuffed lions can also be found accompanying our posse.

NO COMPETITION Rule: Trick Or Treating is NOT a competition. Not a competition for who runs fastest, pushes the most doorbells, gets the most candy or sees the most friends. This is an activity that requires all of us to be at each door before we ring the doorbell (which they take turns on a strict rotating schedule which includes any neighborhood kids that might be in our “pack”). We go over these rules, again, before we leave the house. I hear you saying “but when I was a kid….”, and again I say, “Your kids are NOT you.” Unfortunately, having boundaries to reinforce the fairness of the activity, allows each kid (SPD, NT or ASD—or any combo) to feel like they are included without hitting a trigger (anxious kids trigger easily; triggers can be anything, like feeling left out, feeling ignored, feeling like you are too slow, feeling like you’re the loser each time, etc.). We are looking for FUN not just free candy.

Costumes On, NOW WHAT? Put the costumes on the very last thing possible. How will your child know it is time to go? Talk to them about using their "eyes" to tell when it is time to go. Does everyone have their costume on? Check! Does everyone have their treat bag? Check! Does everyone have their flashlight? Check! Does mom have her camera? Check! Are we ready to play as a team? Check! Giving them a way to know when it is time to go without asking will be helpful in those last tense 5 minutes before the start gun. We don't want a meltdown during those last crucial seconds or all your prep might be for nothing.  Which is a possibility anyway...

On Your Marks Get Set…..GO! OK, you are prepared, your kids are prepared, and now you must leave. Well, what are you waiting for? Don’t you think you’ve prepped enough?

The Aftermath: Use the Halloween Witch to make life easier. You don't know her? The Halloween Witch comes (much like the Tooth Fairy) on Halloween Night after Trick Or Treating is finished when the kids are sleeping. The boys leave their candy out in large ziploc bags and she takes their candy to give to kids who have never tried candy in their lives (or whatever other story you'd like to implement) and leaves behind a toy for the child. We allow the kids to sort all of their candy out, and pick their top 10 pieces to keep in a ziploc baggie which is labeled with their name and placed HIGH up in the cupboards. Then, the remaining candy gets set out on the counter before bed for the Witch. My deal is that the toy should be around $10 at most (this isn't like a big fat Christmas gift, it is a token of the Witch's appreciation). You can use an action figure, matchbox car, we even did umbrellas one year (they wanted them, and I was going to give them the umbrellas anyway--the old "Two Birds/One Stone" adage). We send the candy to my husband's work so I don't eat it. Which is GREAT for all of us and reduces stress and sugar intake for weeks after Halloween. Not to mention it reduces the chance of me gaining 10lbs by November 7th.

Now you are ready to get your little ghosts and goblins, or ballerinas (which I know nothing about) and Clone Troopers and have some fun.

Happy Halloween!


Anonymous said...

I love the suggestions! Especially the one about finding regular clothes and turning it into a costume. My little boy has been a football player for 4 years. He has a Vikings jersey which he loves (but wears a tight underarmour shirt underneath) and sweatpants. Add a little eye black (eyeliner works great) and he is a real football player. My husband wears his football jersey from college ( so funny) and our son feels really good about his costume.

I have bought so many batman, clone wars, star wars,a pumpkin, a puppy, a knight costumes, etc and he has never worn them. He wants to. I know he does. But when it comes time to actually get dressed, it's not happening. We want him to have a good time and feel good about Halloween. So a football player it is!!

Thanks again for your suggestions. They are always so useful, practical and most importantly true to life.

~ Kristen said...

Great post!!!

Overstiulation is just a huge problem for us on Halloween, so many of your ideas help that before, during and after the fact. Thanks so much!!!

Nash picked out a Thomas costumes last year but only wore the hat (called it a conductors had) and we put his Thomas Shirt on him and he was happy as can be. He says he wants to be "Thomas" again this year and we still have the costume even the hat so that will be nice on the pocket book. Something comfortable for him and cute. So all will be happy in the end!! :) (I hope!)

ShesAlwaysWrite said...

Halloween is my absolute, hands down, favorite holiday. And it has nothing to do with the candy, so I am over the moon about your Halloween Witch idea and will be adopting it immediately!

I've been struggling with ideas for Bear's costume this year - he's too little to have a real opinion on a character and doesn't tolerate much on his head or face. What I think I've settled on makes use of stuff he already has/wears with minor embellishments.

JoNo and family said...

Excellent list, Hartley -- thanks for all the ideas and tips. We do the "witch" thing, too -- but we call it The Great Pumpkin!

Jenny said...

Thanks for all the suggestions! What a great idea! Hopefully this will help us prepare our little boy for a fun Halloween!

Eos Mom said...

Great tips--not just for SPD kids but for everyone. I'll definitely be stealing some of these ideas, thanks!

Anonymous said...

Great advice! I remember getting all wrapped up in my own thing when Nate was just starting to do Halloween and I wasn't focusing on his needs and desires.

Once you figure out a strategy and stick to that game plan, you can BOTH have fun. :)