Sensory processing challenges and Halloween: Tips to help your child

Costumes, crowds, and trick-or-treating can be triggers for kids with sensory processing challenges. Try these tips to make Halloween fun.

Kids in costumes running down a sidewalk going Trick or Treating.

At a glance

  • Certain Halloween activities and sensations can be difficult for kids with sensory processing challenges.

  • Costumes, crowds, and unfamiliar sights and smells can all be triggers.

  • With a little preparation, you can help make Halloween easier — and more fun — for your child with sensory processing challenges.

Halloween can be tough for kids with sensory processing challenges. From uncomfortable costumes to sudden noises, there may be lots of triggers. But with a little planning and creativity, you can make Halloween a fun experience for your child.

Here are some common Halloween challenges — and how to help.

Strange and unfamiliar sensations

Decorations like fake cobwebs and mist from fog machines can bother kids with tactile sensitivities.

Consider taking your child to explore the Halloween section at a local big-box store. Your child can get familiar with spooky lights and the noises Halloween decorations make — all in a boring, well-lit setting. Kids can also touch different decorations that they might come across during festivities or trick-or-treating.

Many kids don’t like the smell or slimy texture inside pumpkins. Try alternatives to traditional jack-o’-lantern carving. Use paint or permanent markers and stickers to decorate your pumpkins.

Costume concerns

There’s more to consider than what your child wants to dress up as. It’s important to think about how a Halloween costume feels, fits, and smells.

If a costume is tight, scratchy, or slippery, or if it has a strong odor, it could bother a child who is sensitive to those things. And if your child is sensitive to noise, even the sound of their own breathing inside a mask may cause trouble.

Some stores sell sensory-friendly costumes. Or you could create simple costumes with household items:

  • A soft bath towel can serve as a great cape.
  • Noise-canceling headphones can be used as a base for a construction worker or air traffic controller costume.
  • Attach ears to a favorite hoodie and a tail to sweatpants, transforming your child into a cat, dog, rabbit, or other animal.

If you’re buying a costume, let your child feel it in the store to check for comfort. Washing the fabric ahead of time can also soften it. Or consider having your child wear a comfortable layer — like pajamas — under the costume. Encourage them to practice wearing the costume for a while each day before parties or trick-or-treating.

Trick-or-treating

Trick-or-treating can also be hard for kids with sensory processing challenges. Noisy crowds of kids and flashing decorations may trigger sensory meltdowns.

You may want to have a code word or signal to use if your child feels overwhelmed. Talk about who gets to use it and what action to take. Can you use it if you think your child needs a break, or is it only for your child to use? And discuss what you’ll do when the signal is used. Will you go home or just take a break to regroup?

Trick-or-treating also tends to contradict stranger safety lessons. This can be tough for kids who have trouble with social rules. (That’s especially likely for kids who also have .)

Help your child understand that even though it’s Halloween, the rules are still the same. You could also only go to the homes of family and friends. A few other ways to work around trick-or-treating trouble spots:

  • Map out and practice the route with your child ahead of time so it feels familiar.
  • Go out at dusk or before the streets get very dark and crowded, and bring a flashlight.
  • Pull your younger child in a wagon or let your older child ride a bike to avoid having other kids crowd or bump into them.

Remember that if trick-or-treating becomes too much for your child, you can always bring your child home to pass out candy to other kids (and eat some of it, too).

Creating new Halloween traditions

If your child isn’t comfortable with traditional Halloween customs, try creating new ones instead. Here are a few options:

  • Have a family game night.
  • Watch (not-too-scary) Halloween specials together.
  • Have dinner at a favorite restaurant.
  • Have your child invite some friends over before trick-or-treating for a costume contest or a candy swap.
  • Organize an afternoon neighborhood costume parade.

It may be tempting to skip Halloween. But by talking about and troubleshooting common concerns, you can help make Halloween less scary and more fun for your child.

Get more tips on how to help kids with sensory processing challenges cope with common triggers. And learn about low-key alternatives to trick-or-treating.

Key takeaways

  • It’s important to try to find ways to help your child with sensory processing challenges enjoy Halloween.

  • Trick-or-treating may be easier if your child knows what to expect and that they can go home whenever necessary.

  • For some kids with sensory processing challenges, enjoying Halloween may mean creating new family traditions.

About the author

About the author

Amanda Morin is the author of “The Everything Parent’s Guide to Special Education” and the former director of thought leadership at Understood. As an expert and writer, she helped build Understood from its earliest days. 

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