Trick-or-Treaters With Special Needs: An All-Inclusive Halloween Guide

A therapist’s advice on making Halloween enjoyable for all children.

girls dressed as dorothy gale from wizard of oz for halloween trick or treating

Let’s all get on the same page first and foremost:  while every one of all ages can enjoy Halloween, at the end of the day, it’s for the KIDS.  The climax of the season is on Halloween night when we all stand at our doors and hand out candy to tiny ghouls and goblins.  But what about the ones who just kinda randomly show up, haphazardly dressed and stare blankly into our eyes with their bags and buckets tilted towards us.  Or even those who look directly into the bucket and never even notice the human holding the goods?

Ungrateful brat.

Not so fast. I’m here to remind you that there may be a very good reason that the child looks the way he looks or acts the way he acts.

I’ve worked with kiddos with special needs for over 15 years now.  And here’s a thing most of you may not realize: most of the time, they look “normal.”  I cringe when I say that phrase, and it’s politically incorrect as hell, but that’s what most folks think.  Many disabilities in kiddos are “invisible” but Halloween is really a time when they are more starkly noticeable.


Halloween is weird in the first place (but that’s why we love it, right?).  It’s a time of year when people can display gory things that otherwise would be considered distasteful, and when many people can wear things that they otherwise would never display on their bodies.  It’s a fun time to dress up and celebrate the taboo. But for kids with disabilities, it can be a challenging time.

For kids with sensory differences, the costumes are often itchy and come with components that make them very uncomfortable: strange materials, seams, tags, and masks or makeup.  Many kiddos find this to be intolerable. But at the same time, many kiddos still want to have fun and play dress-up with the rest of their peers. Shout out to Target (as if I need more reasons to love them) for making disability-friendly costumes this year which speaks to this common problem.

Kids on the autism spectrum, or those with other social challenges such as social anxiety, may find Halloween to be rather confusing and frightening.  Often they have to be explicitly taught social norms, such as, “don’t talk to strangers.” Well, Halloween night violates that rule. Suddenly not only are we talking to strangers, but we’re asking them for candy!  What?!

So if a child has a difficult time looking at you or speaking to you, don’t automatically assume they are being rude. They may genuinely have a lot of confusion about what they “should” be doing.

Likewise, some kids with cognitive differences have a hard time reading facial expressions.  Masks make this even more difficult. It can be downright scary, even if the mask isn’t considered to be by most neurotypical folks.

Some kids may be fine cognitively but have specialized diets.  This may mean they are looking over your candy bowl a little longer than the average Spiderman.  Don’t assume that they are just looking for their “favorite.” They may be looking for something they can actually eat that won’t make them sick.

Look, we all know what Halloween night is about: giving sweet kiddos some candy.  Many parents of kids with special needs can make this night be fun with preparation such as trying on the costume in advance to head off any sensory overload problems, or reading stories about what trick or treating looks like.  Let’s be the community they need and give a little grace and patience with these babies. After all, kids don’t keep, and they only get to participate in this tradition for a few years. Let’s make it awesome for kiddos of all abilities.

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