Creating a More Inclusive Halloween Experience
Making a more accessible and safe Halloween for trick-or-treaters 🎃
“Trick or treat, give me something good to eat!”
For kids with allergies, aversions, sensitivities, and medical issues such as Prader-Willi syndrome, Halloween treats can be the trickiest part. Many candies contain nuts, milk, egg, soy, and/or wheat. Food Allergy Research & Education (FARE) lists seven important candy facts that shouldn’t be forgotten during this spooky season!
- Candy corn contains egg whites and may also have sesame oil. Some chocolates can contain sesame oil as well. According to the recent FASTER Act update to the FDA, sesame oil does not legally have to be included on labels until January 1, 2023. Contact the manufacturer if you have any clarification questions.
- Mini-size candy can have different ingredients than its original-sized counterparts! Be sure to double-check the ingredients to make sure it's safe.
- Manufacturers can change ingredients at any time. Just because certain candies were safe last year doesn’t mean they are this year.
- If you’re not able to identify product ingredients, it may be best to toss or have your child trade you for a safer alternative.
- For those with wheat allergies, licorice typically contains wheat as a binding ingredient.
- While the top 9 allergens (milk, eggs, fish, crustacean shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts, wheat, soybeans, and sesame oil) account for over 90% of allergic reactions, there are 200 reported allergens. There is no such thing as “allergy-free” candy.
- Dark chocolate often contains traces of milk. This may not affect someone with lactose intolerance, but it is considered unsafe for those with a milk allergy.
If you hand out candy or want to give neighbors safe options for your own child, check out these gluten-free candy options, nut-free brands, and dairy-free options. You can also consider non-food items like small toys and trinkets (hint: Target has extremely affordable, adorable, and tiny Halloween bubble wands, squishies, pocket notebooks, spider rings, and more) as suggested by the Teal Pumpkin Project, which hosts an online map every year of houses that offer alternate goodies.
What about handling potentially problematic treats that others may give out to your child? Prime your child that you’ll plan on eating the candy later at home, not while out trick-or-treating. (You can bring along a piece of safe candy in your pocket to keep them going.) Manage the expectation that you will bring candy home and open it in the light.
To remove treats from your home peacefully, some families enjoy traditions like the “Switch Witch,” who trades kids’ candy for other fun surprises (you can modify this idea as you need to). You can also talk to your kids about setting aside candy for others, or participate in a buy-back program for treats at a dentist near you. Here’s a list of ideas to get you started:
- Some Ronald McDonald Houses collect candy for the families staying there during the holiday.
- Several organizations send candy to soldiers stationed overseas, such as Soldiers’ Angels and Operation Shoebox.
- Search Halloween Candy Buyback to find a participating dentist near you!
Halloween involves a lot of excitement, social interaction with strangers, scary decorations, and trick-or-treating with groups of friends, all of which can be intimidating and spooky for our kids. For children with behavioral difficulties who get super excited about the holiday, these difficulties can be exacerbated. On the other hand, some children may not engage in Halloween because it strays from routine or involves activities that don’t hold their interest. Many kids with disabilities have trouble forming meaningful peer relationships, so the idea of going solo with family can be crushing.
One way to address worrying or overexcited thoughts in a positive way is to manage expectations. If you’re going trick-or-treating, when can they eat the candy? How long will the trick-or-treating last? Who is going to join? Setting expectations beforehand and being prepared for how the night should go can ease anxieties and unexpected behaviors. You can prime your child with a social story about how trick-or-treating looks and practice ahead of time. Here are some sample Halloween social stories for ideas:
- Wearing a costume and going trick-or-treating
- Trick-or-treating safely
- How the night will go, from trick-or-treating to bed
- Answering the door for trick-or-treaters
If you’re worried about a lack of friends, invite another family to join you and explain your plan so that everyone knows what to expect. If going door-to-door causes anxiety, find an alternate activity like a “trunk or treat” to attend! Some organizations (including elementary schools) will put on a Halloween tailgate and decorate the trunks of cars to offer candy, fun decorations, and other goodies in a less stressful environment.
Kids may not know they’re getting some extra practice signing or using their AAC device when they go trick-or-treating, but hey, here’s to silver linings!
- Learn how to sign “Trick or treat!”
- Many AAC programs come with a preloaded Halloween page. If your child’s doesn’t, and you don’t know how to program new words into your kid’s device, there’s still time to ask their speech therapist for help!
- Work together to create and decorate a card that reads “Trick or treat!” for them to hold up.
- If they want to speak the words but are not easily understood, you can repeat it after them with an affirming high five or praise like “That's great—you said, ‘Trick or treat!’”
- You can also let trusted neighbors know in advance that you’ll be visiting, and be sure to practice with your kiddo before heading out!
Watch this clip for tips from Lindsay Pineda, M.A. and BCBA Executive Director of Empowered Behavior Solutions:
Creating a sensory-friendly experience
On average, sensory issues affect one in six children in the United States. Traditional Halloween set-ups and costumes can involve a lot of triggers for children with sensory sensitivities. From fake spider webs, fog machines, and loud noises to itchy, restricting material, the list of causes for a possible sensory meltdown goes on. Priming your child for the Halloween experience can help with this, but many families also create their own way to celebrate to limit sensory overloads.
If you’re concerned about issues when it comes to wearing a costume out to an activity or during a school parade, have your child practice wearing the costume in advance. You can take pictures on a calm day and even have a back-up costume ready. What will make your child excited about dressing up? If this is a simple Halloween T-shirt, then that’s okay!
Celebrating Halloween in your own way
Here are more ideas from our Team Undivided for Parents Facebook group:
Jen D. says: “My son was terrified of trick-or-treating when he was younger, so we would trick-or-treat inside our house. His dad and I would take turns waiting behind doors with a bowl of treats, and he’d knock and we’d pretend we didn’t know each other. He had a blast, and it was good practice for eventually getting out in our neighborhood.”
Lindsay C. says: “My daughter never liked trick-or-treating. It was too much for her, but she liked talking about it with friends (she wanted her own stories and to participate in Halloween, but in a way that felt safe). We started creating a haunted street, and we're now a place the neighborhood wants to visit — so there are a ton of memories for her, and she is surrounded by people who are celebrating, yet she can come inside when/if it's too much. Halloween comes to us in a way she can handle. She can choose to participate for 5 minutes or no minutes.”
Another parent recommends checking out festive locations like L.A.’s Cemetery Lane at Heritage Square, where there are plenty of things to see and enough distraction that trick-or-treating doesn’t feel mandatory.