By Sarah A. Weddle, Ph.D., BCBA-D, LABA
Halloween traditions like trick-or-treating and dressing in costume can be extremely entertaining, but particularly challenging for children with autism and related disabilities. A child on the autism spectrum may have difficulty understanding abstract concepts, engaging in imaginary thinking, and using spontaneous communication for social interactions with other children. This can make participation difficult for social traditions like Halloween.
Imagine a child with autism being approached by a ghost, witch, or 12-year-old fireman. Add to that the pressure that comes with knocking on neighborhood doors and asking for candy. How will he or she react? Without some preparation, practice, and education around these interactions, the child may become afraid or upset. What could have been a fun and exciting experience instead could leave the child in tears.
Parents and caregivers can proactively make this time of year more enjoyable by introducing children to common traditions and activities. You can do so using some of the most common autism interventions (or treatment approaches), including schedules, social stories, modeling, and others. [These are all evidence-based interventions recommended in Findings and Conclusions: National Standard’s Project, Phase 2 (National Autism Center at May Institute, 2015).]
Visual schedules are a great way to make a new experience as predictable as possible for a child on the autism spectrum by offering a preview of new activities and transitions ahead of time.
Social Stories and Story-based Intervention:
- Prior to Halloween, list the activities, locations, and events you anticipate and display this schedule visually (using symbols, pictures, or written words depending on the needs of your child). A visual schedule could include:
- getting dressed
- riding in the car
- going to party at the library
- painting pumpkins
- playing with friends
- going home
- Review the schedule on Halloween by pointing to and naming the items on the list. As one activity ends and another begins, point at and name the activity on the schedule.
- Continue to use any visual supports or communication systems your child normally uses during this time.
Social stories are written descriptions of what children can expect in specific situations. For Halloween, a social story would serve as a mini-lesson to educate them on seasonal traditions, expected behavior, and how you will support them if they decide not to participate.
Here’s an example of a Halloween-themed social story:
Halloween happens at the end of October. Around October 31, many people dress in funny clothes or wear masks that make them look different than they usually do. Sometimes they choose to be superheroes, princesses, scary creatures, or famous people. I can choose to dress up too. My mom and dad can help me find a costume. After I dress up, my parents can go with me to trick-or-treat.
When we go trick-or-treating, I will stay close to my parents. They will show me how to say hello to my friends and ask nicely for treats. I might feel scared when I see someone in a costume, but I will be brave because I know it is just a person dressing up in silly clothing. I can tell my parents if I need help, or I can move away.
*Additional story-based activity: Read a popular, age-appropriate narrative book about Halloween to introduce the holiday during the days leading up to the festivities.
Modeling and Language Training:
Modeling means showing your child how to do what is expected – from start to finish – and then encouraging him or her to practice the new skills until they become more automatic. Modeling also includes teaching your child how to use correct language.
Here’s an example of a trick-or-treat modeling exercise to practice before Halloween:
Model with language -
Parent stands at the front door with the child and demonstrates: “When we go up to a door, we knock and wait for someone to answer. When the door opens we say, ‘Happy Halloween, trick-or-treat’”!
“Now you say it.”
Child knocks on the door, waits, and then says, “Happy Halloween, trick-or-treat!” Encourage your child to practice saying this phrase and repeating the actions until he or she is comfortable.
Praise and Reward –
“I really like how you said Trick-or-treat!” Give your child a small treat to eat (mimics the exchange on the night too).
*Additional language practice: Introduce other Halloween-specific scripts for social interactions (e.g., “Happy Halloween!”, “My costume is a superhero”, “I like your costume”) and practice using yourself as a model.
Make a list of your concerns ahead of time and use the above strategies to introduce, prepare, and practice the skills your child will need to have fun and enjoy Halloween. You can identify and select events, activities, and treats that your child typically prefers. Once you have an idea of the activities you will introduce, then you can practice together as many times as your child needs!
Sarah A. Weddle, Ph.D., LABA, BCBA-D, is Divisional Director of Clinical Services and Training at May Institute. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
May Institute is an award-winning nonprofit organization with more than 65 years of experience in serving children and adults with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other developmental disabilities, brain injury and neurobehavioral disorders, and other special needs. May Institute operates four schools for children and adolescents with ASD and other developmental disabilities, including one in Randolph, Mass. For more information, call 800-778-7601 or www.mayinstitute.org.