For many children diagnosed on the autism spectrum, some of the biggest challenges come in the domains of socialization and changes in routine. This was evident in the recent story out of Florida which saw children with autism denied the privileges of the Disability Access Service (DAS) when waiting in line at Walt Disney World.
Further challenges are presented during events such as Halloween. A child with autism may find multiple aspects of the holiday difficult, from wearing a costume to being around other children to walking in the street for long periods of time to saying “Trick or Treat.”
The following are some simple tips to help your child and your family have not only a successful and enjoyable Halloween, but can be generalized to other events in your child’s life.
The “First, Then” Rule
To assist with difficulties associated with going out for Halloween, you can implement the Premack Principle, also referred to as the “First, Then” rule. This strategy increases the motivation to complete the first, non-preferred activity before completing the second. Prior to a non-preferred activity, instruct your child that they will first complete a non-preferred activity and, once that’s completed, they will have access to their preferred activity. This strategy can be utilized for daily tasks such as chores or homework but can also be used for Halloween-related activities. For example, if your child is resistant to saying “Trick or Treat,” instruct them, “First you’re going to say ‘Trick or Treat’ and then you’ll get a piece of candy!”
Use of a Timer
Another simple strategy to help facilitate completion of a non-preferred activity, like wearing a costume, or to signal when it’s time to engage in a non-preferred activity is to use a timer. This can be a simple kitchen timer or a timer on your cell phone, and should be audible to your child when it goes off. It may be helpful to have the timer visible to your child, unless you believe that they may become distracted. Prior to a non-preferred activity, such as walking around your neighborhood for trick-or-treating, instruct your child that first they will complete their non-preferred activity or action and once that’s finished, then they will have access to their preferred activity. In addition to this vocal prompt, you will incorporate the timer, such as by saying, “You’re trick-or-treat for 10 minutes, then you can take a break.”
Many times, children can have difficulty transitioning between activities because they are not aware of common environmental cues, which may lead to problem behaviors. Much like adults who use calendars and day planners, a visual schedule is a tool that you can implement with your child to help eliminate unpredictability in their daily routine and aid in transitions. A visual schedule can be presented as pictures of the activities or as a list. It’s important to cross or check off each activity as they’re completed so your child can see progress in the schedule. Remember to reinforce your child’s behavior with each successful transition.
1. Put on costume
2. Walk to neighbor’s house
3. Say “Trick or Treat”
4. Get candy
5. Go home
If it’s your child’s first time going out for Halloween, it maybe helpful to role play at home what trick-or-treating will look like. To do this, set up mock stations representing different houses, using family members or friends at each station, and have your child go to each station, practicing saying “Trick or Treat” in their costume. This will help your child grow more accustomed to the routine of Trick-or-Treating and eliminate some unpredictability.