Resource Articles by Dr. Hess

"How to Take the Trick Out of Trick or Treat" - Solutions for the Halloween Blues for our Special Needs Kids

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By Esther B. Hess, Ph.D.

Children with autism have fragile nervous systems that lend itself to the misinterpretation of environmental stimuli, in areas such as sensory integration, sensory modulation, auditory processing, visual-spatial distortions, motor planning and coordination difficulties. Without accurate sensory input from their bodies, letting them know in essence where they are in space and time, our special needs kids are left feeling disoriented and anxious. This is one of the reasons that children with autism crave predictable situations and why a change in the schedule, which often happens during a holiday, can cause enormous stress and emotional upheaval. If you add to the mix, a particular occasion like Halloween, where the whole point of the experience is to relish the unexpected, dress up as scary ghoulish characters, knock on strangers' doors and ingest enormous amounts of sugared candy, all these elements combine to unnerve the already fragile neurological balance of our children on the spectrum.

With that in mind, here's a list of suggestions for parents to implement during Halloween that finds a middle ground between the predictability that our kids crave with the spontaneous fun of the holiday.

  1. 2 or 3 days before Halloween, write a social story (see ) with your child that in essence creates a step by step plan for the evening. Include a section on being o.k. with the scary feelings that this holiday provokes.
  2. Explore with your child what kind of costume they would like, make sure that he is given numerous opportunities to try on his outfit (both with and without a mask) and don't be insistent if at the last minute, he decides to change his mind and not wear a costume at all. You however, may want to wear a costume yourself, both to join in on the fun and model for your child appropriate reactions to public comments.
  3. Check out the glutton free/casein free treats that many health conscious vendors carry. For example, Whole Foods grocery chain traditionally carries fruit leathers and naturally sweetened jelly beans for the occasion.
  4. Instead of going door to door in your neighborhood while it's dark and navigationally confusing, many vendors in the larger shopping malls are creating opportunities for children to trick or treat in afternoon hours. You may want to preview with your child the route that you will take a day or so ahead of the scheduled event. Speak to the vendors ahead of time as well, so they are prepared to be as supportive as possible.
  5. A compliment to the strategy of going to the mall is to visit two or three houses in your own neighborhood of families who your child knows well. If you plan ahead, you can provide these homes with "goodies" that work with either limited or restricted diets.

Esther B. Hess, Ph.D. is a developmental psychologist with more than 30 years of clinical experience. Dr. Hess specializes in the assessment, diagnosis and treatment of children and adolescents with developmental delays and/or regulatory disorders including autism spectrum disorder. Dr. Hess is also the executive director of Center for the Developing Mind, a multidisciplinary treatment facility for children and adolescents with developmental and/or regulatory disorder in West Los Angeles.