Happy ‘Alternative’ Halloween For Children With Special Needs

The advertising and marketing around Halloween seems to ramp up to greater and greater heights every year, with major supermarkets dedicating whole isles, sometimes several of them, to their Halloween merchandise, even during the crisis that we are all enduring. Advertising supports this with lots of TV adverts featuring ghosts, ghouls, pumpkins and spiders’ webs. Then there’s the BBC Strictly Come Dancing ‘Halloween Special’ (although not in 2020!)

Halloween literally means the evening before All Hallows Day or All Saint’s Day, a day festival celebrated on the 1st November each year. The name Halloween is a shortened version of All Hallows’ Evening which is celebrated on 31st October. The origin and meaning of the festival of Halloween is derived from ancient Celtic harvest rituals, but today Halloween is a time of the year that many children really look forward to; a time for fantasy and fun, a time for dressing up and scary stories, a time for ‘trick or treat’ adventures and lots of sweets!

But while Halloween is a fun time of year for many children, it can be a really difficult time for some, including many children with additional/special needs. For them it can be a confusing, anxiety inducing, or even utterly terrifying time. But it doesn’t have to be like that; if we stop for a moment to think about the things they might find hard and how to put things in place to help them, they can safely join in the fun too. So, what are some of the things about Halloween that children with additional needs can find hard:

  1. Stranger Danger?
    We tell children all year not to talk to strangers, then on one night it’s suddenly fine to go around knocking on strangers’ doors. This can be hugely difficult for some Autistic children, for example, who are often very literal in their understanding and can be very confused by this. Why is it OK to speak to strangers today but it wasn’t yesterday? What has changed? What will the rules be tomorrow? Why? Then throw a global pandemic into the mix with all of the rules about social distancing and visiting other houses and the whole thing descends into chaos.
  2. Fake or Real?
    The more garish dressing up can be genuinely terrifying for a child that struggles to tell the difference between fake and real. Increasingly, we’re seeing dressing up outfits becoming more realistic with fake gore and movie quality makeup that makes people look truly terrifying. When that line is crossed for a child that believes that the person really has hideous injuries or has been turned into something evil, theirs is the terror that is real. Cue massive meltdowns, sleepless nights, and recurring anxiety.
  3. I’m Scared Enough Already!
    Talking about anxiety, some children with ongoing anxiety issues can find the whole business of going out ‘trick or treating’ very upsetting. Surprises, scares, people jumping out, can all be terrifying. If it’s hard to deal with the day-to-day anxiety that they face about going out on a regular day, ramp this up multiple times when Halloween is involved!
  4. What About Me?
    Then there are the kids with additional needs or disabilities that don’t get invited to the parties or to go out ‘trick or treating’ because they are viewed as ‘different’ (usually by other parents rather than the other children). Here’s yet another opportunity for them to feel left out, rejected and uninvited because they haven’t been included… again.
  5. Parent Problems!
    It’s not just the kids. Parents of children with e.g. ADHD may not enjoy their children being given loads of sugary, colourful, sweets when they are up all night with a hyperactive sugar fueled child!

There are loads of other reasons beside these, but there are also many ways to make Halloween easier for children with additional or special needs, and their families, so that they can join in too… Here’s a few ideas:

Helpful ‘Alternative’ Halloween Hints
• Prepare them in advance, giving them a visual timetable of what is going to happen, how and when.
• ‘Prime’ some friendly neighbours who are known to your child and that you can visit safely with your child knowing that they won’t do anything too scary or surprising. Encourage them to help keep to the COVID rules (whatever they are at that point!)
• Provide ear defenders for your child so that any unexpected noises, fireworks etc. are less of a problem.
• Avoid gory and blood-soaked outfits. It’s more about the dressing up than who can look the most terrifying and there are plenty of alternative options to choose from.
• With this in mind, maybe host an alternative ‘light party’, a counter-cultural celebration of things that are bright, light, colourful and good. Loads more variety with the dressing up, just as much fun, and no scares! If actual in-house parties aren’t allowed, organize an online version for your children to join in with.
• Choose sugar free sweets, or better yet try some healthier snacks themed around Halloween (satsumas as ‘mini pumpkins’ for example).
• If you are hosting a party (in-house if they are allowed, online if not), think about who might be left out and make sure you remember to invite them.
• Have fun but keep checking on how your child is feeling. If they are struggling, have something that they love doing ready at home, so that you can easily return to that and help them have fun in a different way (carving pumpkins – they don’t have to be scary, making pumpkin mini-pies, decorating a jar to put a battery night-light in, apple bobbing, toasting marshmallows…)

I hope that ‘Alternative’ Halloween is a great success for you all this year, in spite of the restrictions, especially for those of you with children with additional or special needs! It doesn’t have to be a gory scare-fest, it can be a happy and enjoyably positive festival instead!

Mark Arnold

Image rights: Header © Unknown, other images © Authors own

4 thoughts on “Happy ‘Alternative’ Halloween For Children With Special Needs

  1. Great advice Mark. My eldest hates Halloween and avoids it (me too!) but my youngest loves it. We tread very carefully as her anxiety skyrockets. This year she trick or treated her Dad in different rooms of the house, carved a pumpkin and that was about it. Job done…

    Liked by 1 person

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