Autism & Halloween: A Sometimes Scary Mix

jack o lantern pumpkins hallowee
Cristian Iohan Ştefănescu/Flickr

Halloween can be frightening and hard to explain to any child. Talk of ghosts and witches, scary masks, and grave stones in the neighbor's yard can prompt plenty of nightmares. For children with autism, however, it can be particularly challenging to celebrate the holiday with all the new rules (yes, you can actually knock on someone's door and ask for candy) and nuances it brings.


Kim Stagliano, author of the new book All I Can Handle; I'm No Mother Teresa, is the mother of three girls who have autism. I talked with her about her experiences with them and Halloween over the years and what other people can do to make the holiday a little less frightening and more enjoyable for children with autism and their families.

What challenges do children with autism face when it comes to Halloween?

Oh, where to begin? Well, Halloween is inherently abstract, and that can be difficult for some kids on the spectrum. It's hard to separate the illusion of costumes from reality. The concept of not going into a house after ringing the doorbell was tough too -- 364 days a year you go to a door, ring the bell, and walk in, and here you have this one night where everyone is out and yet you can't walk into the house? It confused my oldest daughter especially.  

Any anecdotes or examples from your own family?

I've chased my girls up a staircase or two as they zoomed into a house to check out the bedrooms!   

For those with sensory issues, what kind of costumes would you suggest?

Costumes themselves can be a challenge for kids who have sensory issues. I was never able to put face paint on my children when they were young. They would not tolerate it. Costumes had to feel like clothing, and so I often made their costumes from clothes in their closet.   

It's easy to turn an orange sweat suit into a tiger, for instance. One year I bought cheerleader dresses from Boston College -- that was a comfortable, easy costume for the girls. Keep the child's needs in mind first and foremost. When Mia and Gianna were toddlers, I bought the "Thing 1 and Thing 2" Dr. Seuss costumes with the big red wigs. Neither girl would wear the wig -- so I realized I had to buy the costume to suit the child -- NOT the mother!

Any other considerations people may want to take into account?

A child on the spectrum might not say, "Trick or Treat" at the door, but please, just give him or her a big smile and let him choose a piece of candy, just like the other kids. They might not say thank you either -- please don't think them rude. I can promise you that Mom and Dad are very nervous on Halloween night about how their kids will do. Holidays are often bittersweet for the parents. It can feel kind of sad when your child isn't racing down the street with friends and laughing. Or is still holding your hand and walking tentatively at 12 or 13 on Halloween. Give Mom and Dad a piece of candy too.

Like most parents, autism Moms and Dads separate out the candy a child can eat (if any) from the candy they cannot. I'll allow a couple of piece of chocolate as a treat, but nothing with artificial colors or generally gummy in nature. I think peanut allergies have made parents consider non-food treats for Halloween too, which can be fun. Some years I've delivered a small treat bag with my girls' names on them early in the day. That way when the kids knocked at the door, the neighbor knew which treat to give them. That worked really well.

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