How can I help to make the most out of Halloween for my sensory sensitive child?

With October being Sensory Awareness month, it’s a perfect time to recognize the strong influence that sensation has on behavior, not only for special occasions, but in ordinary daily life.

Children with sensory sensitivities are more sensitive than most other children to at least one type of stimulation and generally less comfortable with sensory events of daily life; most often more than one sensory system is involved. Mysteriously, a person can be overly responsive to some types of stimulation and under responsive to others. A common combination is heightened sensitivity to sound and to touch or texture (often known as tactile defensiveness). And frequently, when a person with sensory sensitivities is overly responsive to one type of input, other sensitivities become more pronounced. Food allergies, or sensitivities to certain foods or ingredients, may also serve to accentuate sensory sensitivity. What’s more, the accumulative effect of sensory input over time is commonly seen with sensory sensitivity; in other words, the effect of sensory stimulation adds up over time, so by the end of the day discomfort or other adverse responses to sensory input may be demonstrated when everything may have seemed fine earlier on in the day. And guess what? – Just as sleep impacts just about everything, lack of sleep or changes in sleep routine may also seem to worsen sensory sensitivities and the ability to cope with them.

With October 31st being a Monday, Halloween 2016 is looking like a three day weekend of dress up, get-togethers, parades, and trick-or-treating, with all the special costumes, masks, hoods and accessories, disguises, spooky and often unexpected sounds, music and sights, out-of-the-ordinary group activities, crowds, social interaction and goodies that go along with this over 100 year old holiday. What does all this “fun” amount to? Overabundant, and often unfamiliar stimulation. And the net effect? – A tendency toward self-protection, which, for the brain and other parts of the nervous system, means fight or flight. And a tendency toward reduced discrimination, which means a lessened ability to perceive distinctions among stimulation needed for judgment and adaptive action. It’s no wonder that poor listening, reduced cooperation, and melt-downs also may accompany Halloween festivities.

How to keep the fun in Halloween?

1. Keep it simple for the sake of comfort, both in terms of attire and activities. Choose a costume that feels like most other ordinary clothes when worn, or add a few accessories to clothes already worn by your child. Be selective about activities – you don’t have to do everything or stay for the full length of all activities.

2. Arrange a few Halloween “previews”. Practice costume wearing, perhaps even working up to the full costume. Rehearse trick-or-treating at your own front door. Play some “scarey” music and sounds, increasing volume within a safe listening level with familiarity.

3. Instill a sense of safety. Plan all events for daylight and with at least one parent or grandparent. Hold your child’s hand (sometimes and all the time), perhaps even giving it steady slow squeezes and even asking for squeezes back in return. Go to doors with your child, or let him/her know exactly where you will be waiting, in plain sight, no matter what. Give your child a big, long hug every now and then. Check back in at home for breaks between activities, or after a few houses of trick-or-treating.

4. Think “sensory”. Based on what you already know about your child’s sensory preferences and aversions, take your child’s perspective and analyze the environment. What’s potentially itchy or too much on the skin, too loud, too much of an undesirable tone(s) (i.e a high scream, a spooky laugh, a siren), too bright, distracting, disruptive, disturbing? Avoid surroundings that include others’ inadvertent touch. Remember that sensory input can have an accumulative effect.

5. Keep it positive (aka quit when you’re ahead). It’s far better to return home before a problem occurs. For those kids who will still want to stay at an activity or do more trick-or-treating beyond your limit, plan for a Halloween surprise back home that’ll help motivate your child to head home with you.

Although intended for Halloween, these tips can be applied to other events or outings too. Older children with sensory sensitivities who have the social skills and judgment to be out without a parent can benefit from learning and using these tips themselves.

–Sheila Allen, MA, OT

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