Tips on creating an inclusive Halloween

For many, Halloween is an exciting holiday: children get dressed up in costumes of all sorts and parade around the neighbourhood in search of the house giving out the best chocolate bars. 

But for parents and teachers of children with special needs, Halloween is a holiday riddled with physical and invisible barriers. Integrating children with disabilities into haunted activities might be considered a huge challenge. Many disabilities affect mobility and motor skills, which makes enjoying Halloween in all its glory a challenging task. 

While there are articles and Pinterest boards that note the creative ideas families can use to make sure their children enjoy spooky season, it is important to note the precautions that might trigger certain disabilities during this upcoming holiday. 

Setting

The crowds — the noise — the people. These are the factors that most often affect children with disabilities during Halloween. Halloween is filled with sensory overload such as; The flutter of people in costumes wandering up and down dimly-lit streets, the sickeningly sweet overpowering smell of candy corn and even the bright lights and noises coming from mechanical decorations. Sensory overload is a medical term used when a person has trouble dealing with external stimuli. Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), for example, have trouble coping with the idea of many things happening at once, right before their eyes. 

Usually, there are easy solutions for sensory overload. Going trick-or-treating in a quieter alleyway or neighbourhood to ease the turnout of people, or even wearing noise cancelling headphones can help, especially with some of the noise. If your little brother or sister thinks Halloween is becoming “too loud” or hectic, they might need to go home early due to sensory overstimulation.

Costume

A big part of Halloween is dressing up. For one night you get to be whoever you want to be, whether that may be Superman or Cinderella.  Children with autism and other sensory acuteness may feel anxious and overwhelmed when choosing a costume or getting into one. They are also prone to changing their mind last minute or refusing to dress up. It is important to be mindful of that if a child shows up to your door without any disguise; it might be hard enough for him or her to even go trick-or-treating in the first place. 

Costumes also pose difficulty for children in wheelchairs. As their means of getting around, having a line of inclusive costumes would be a dream come true for prospective princesses and pirates. Just this month, an article was published by USA Today about the adaptability in Target’s selection of Halloween costumes. They offer pirate ship covers and carriage covers for wheelchairs (retailing at $45 USD). There is also a company called Rolling Buddies that specializes in Halloween costumes and takes original requests. 

Although the department store can now only be found in the U.S, every retailer should take a lesson from them this Halloween season, especially Canadian ones. But even a simple Amazon search points out the lack of costumes for physically impaired children or adults, which is rather surprising: offering a more inclusive line of Halloween costumes is both the right thing to do and may attract support from customers companies might otherwise be alienating. 

Location and Presentation

Halloween is the only holiday (other than Christmas) where it’s acceptable to deck out your house and for this boo-tiful season, we typically see it all:  gauze, caution tape and huge blow ups adorning front lawns. On Halloween night the walkways look daunting and there are a lot of trekking up stairs in search of a few pieces of candy. But again, there are physical barriers that can prevent children with disabilities from accessing these areas. 

There are a number of things those handing out treats can do to make the experience more inclusive.  For one, try leaving the treat bowl down by the stairs. This tip, while also being proven time effective, will save trick-or-treaters in wheelchairs the inconvenience of struggling to get candy as every other child runs up and down the stairs without a second thought. Because very few houses have an access ramp, leaving the candy on the porch or by the door would be extremely difficult for children in wheelchairs. The idea of putting the candy on the stairs, or close by, might also benefit children with anxiety or who get easily overwhelmed in having to perform certain tasks. Being mindful of these barriers and leaving the bowl down by the stairs allows children to take what they please and walk away, providing maximum comfort.

You might also try handing out treats in a well-lit area: as easy as this is, it’s not often considered by parents. Not only is a dark house a safety hazard for all children, it’s difficult for anyone with physical limitations, like a visual impairment. Make sure your house is in a lit area so that everyone can process where to go and how to navigate themselves to you. By keeping a brightly lit house, you’re making sure that the chances of someone hurting themselves this Halloween season are slim.

And for trick or treaters who are deaf or nonverbal, make sure they can see your face and mouth, so they can follow along with your actions and mouthing of words. Avoiding masks and facial decals that obstruct view of the face and mouth is key. 

In addition to taking action themselves, there have been projects employed to raise awareness about Halloween and the struggles that go with it.

The blue pumpkin, for example, has been popularized on social media this past week, but has also sparked some controversy. Instead of carrying a plastic orange pumpkin to collect their candy, kids who are non-verbal and autistic carry the blue bucket so that they don’t have to say “trick or treat” before being given a piece of candy. But some parents were concerned that endorsing blue buckets is actually a way of negatively ‘singling out children.’ The project is similar to the teal pumpkin project, which was created by Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE) in 2014 to raise awareness of food allergies among groups of children. Both initiatives aim to make trick-or-treating more inclusive, and easier on both parents and children.

My son is 3 years old and has autism. He is nonverbal. Last year houses will wait for him to say TRICK OR TREAT in order…

Posted by Omairis Taylor on Sunday, October 13, 2019

Of course, it’s easier to talk about things we can do to make Halloween more inclusive, as opposed to putting these actions in motion. Jennifer Wyeld, a special education teacher with the Peel District School Board, continues to pursue Halloween-geared activities in her classroom, but says she notices right away the change in attitude of some of her students. 

“The children don’t really know how to handle their emotions—spontaneous movements and tantrums happen,” saud Wyeld. “It’s their Halloween too, and it’s stressful.” 

Wyeld says that both kids with disabilities and parents hoping to be more accommodating can do a number of things to make things on Halloween day flow more smoothly.  “Maybe kids could practice walking door-to-door in their costumes to be better prepared for Halloween and to develop some sort of routine. Also making sure their costume allows them to move freely or lowering the volume of your music—just simple things like that can really allow them to have a good time.” 

As Halloween is fast approaching, it’s important to be mindful of how your actions can impact children with disabilities. Learning how to adapt to different styles of trick or treating, costumes and being mindful of sensitivities whether to noise or over-stimulation, can help children with disabilities feel more welcome and included. The tricks and treats that go hand in hand with Halloween should be for everyone and spreading awareness around catering to different disabilities is crucial to that inclusivity.