Fight, Flight, and Fright; Halloween for the Sensory Sensitive Child


Halloween night truly awakens the senses; the cool, crisp air hitting your face and the sound of the leaves crunching underfoot thundering in your ears. The streetlamp ahead flickers as it struggles to light your way. In the distance, a dog barks at the unexpected creatures passing by. A swarm of smells tickles your nostrils; decomposing mulch, damp grass, carved pumpkins, a neighbor’s fire. Your step is unsteady and it’s hard to see where you’re going in the darkness and you’re relying on the feel of the sidewalk beneath you. Ahead, you see the dim light of a garage, decorated like a horror movie with its owners waiting.. for you.
Unsure, you pause. You can feel the breath of the person behind you, urging you to move forward. Should you go further? Before you answer, imagine you are a sensory sensitive child.

Things are getting scary.

For adults, Halloween is a sensory-rich holiday and can be quite thrilling. For a sensory sensitive child, however, it can be torture. At my first workplace as a staff occupational therapist for a developmental preschool, we hosted a sensory “fun house” asking the kids to touch a bunch of creepy stuff. There were peeled grape “eyeballs”, pumpkin guts, cold pasta, and feeling around for finding spiders in webs. It was terrible for the sensory avoiding types! Kids were hesitant, scared, some gagged, and one even vomited in response to the texture. 
That experience taught me A LOT about being a sensory sensitive child at Halloween. 

Children with sensory processing disorder can have a hard time on holidays.

Let’s pause to think about what goes into a typical celebration of Halloween for our little ones. We’ll start at home where they are rushed from school to eat dinner and put on their costume. For kiddos with sensory sensitivity on Halloween, their tactile system is on high alert: the scratchy feel of the fabric, bulky layers underneath, weird footwear, face paint, masks and wigs.

Next, we parade out the door and approach the first stoop. While a traditional rite of passage, it’s an odd request from us to send our bundles of joy marching up to a strange door. Hello, stranger danger! Often the unassuming homeowner is in costume, which can be quite a shock to a child. We coach them to say “Trick or Treat” and smile graciously. Next they are fumbling to open their bag, or trying to decipher the colorful bowl of wrappers. It’s a lot!

For most kids on a good day, this is a strange situation to be in. 

Many kids with sensory difficulties or social skills struggle with what to say to a stranger or how to answer their questions. They start out nervous and uncomfortable and a line of others behind them adds to the pressure. The lights are distracting and the motion activated Halloween decorations are startling. They wonder whether or not those giant spiders are for real. With all this extra unpredictable visual and auditory input, sensory sensitive kids are in a constant “fight or flight” (or fright) mode as they try to make it down the block.

Halloween is supposed to be fun. Here are some tips to keep it that way for the sensory sensitive child:

  • Pick a costume that matches their sensory preferences – maybe soft pajamas or long johns underneath, footwear that lets them “feel” where they are going, a hat vs. a mask, etc. 
  • Know the limits and plan appropriately. Practice getting their costume on and off at home so they know what to expect.
  • Eat dinner early, plan for some protein for stamina, and try to avoid sugar since they’ll be likely dipping into their pails by the end of the night!
  • Look ahead at the “tricks” that lie at your neighbors doors – skip the ones that threaten to assault the senses. 
  • It’s best to stay close to home in case you need to make a quick detour back to the comfort of your own living room.
  • End the night on a positive note. Don’t wait for a meltdown. Get home before everyone falls apart. 
  • Consider staying in. Some years my own children have handed out the candy and I think they benefited more from that experience! They practiced opening the door, smiling and saying “hello” and “goodbye” to a peer. I count that as a win!
  • Consider changing the routine entirely. My cousin didn’t let her kids go trick or treating in their early years and instead they went “visiting” to their neighbors’ houses before the very cold weather came.

My kids’ favorite part of Halloween is the end of the night when they can sort and organize their candy, counting and making trades. Maybe that makes us dorks but I’m okay with it. For the sensory sensitive child, Halloween can still be a special time with just a few modifications. 

What’s helped your family (particularly if you have a sensory sensitive child) enjoy a successful Halloween?

Sensory sensitive child on Halloween - counting candy
Counting Candy