Helping our Kids Modulate their Sensory Systems
Halloween can be a very overwhelming experience for our children who have difficultly with sensory modulation. One of the hardest things for our children with sensory processing disorder or modulation difficulties is the unexpected. It is hard for children to get a variety of sensory input especially when they are out of their normal routine and to not become overstimulated. Let's break this down by the type of sensory modulation:
Register or Rabbit: These are the children that often try to avoid sensory input. Halloween can be overstimulating for our "Rabbits" due to loud noises, lots of people, costumes that give new or different tactile input, and a change of routine.
Tricks to help:
Make a visual schedule
Allow them to go with a smaller group or allow them to stay home and hand out candy.
Allow them to try on a variety of costumes and slowly warm up to their costume.
Give them time between school and trick or treating for down time.
Give them headphones to wear or ear buds to decreased auditory input.
Make a map of the houses and amount of time with "check points" therefore, if they need a break or are getting overwhelmed you can change plans or go home before a big meltdown.
Seekers or Tigers: Halloween if often our sensory seekers favorite. It is a day filled with running, jumping, playing outside, and of course sugar. They often can't be contained due to excitement and expectations for their evening. It can become overwhelming as a parent; they require very strict boundaries and organized input to keep them from losing control of their body.
Tricks to help:
Make a list of expected vs. unexpected behaviors
Give appropriate guidelines such as a number of pieces of candy they can eat, number of houses you will visit, and number of people you will be trick or treating with.
Allow them to work for something if they can maintain control of their body such as an extra piece of candy.
Allow them to have a safe word or safe spot that will not draw attention if they start to feel out of control and need help to get reorganized.
Do yoga prior to trick or treating for increased modulation.
Discuss visual check ins with your child (if you can't see me then I can't see you) this means you need to wait.
Talk about their "engine" level prior to going.
Sensor or Piglet: Halloween for our piglets is often so overwhelming they have a hard time keeping engaged. It is hard for them to keep up with the pace of friends running to the houses, and can get easily distracted by all the Halloween decorations and/or wants to go at their own pace.
Tricks to help:
Take them on a walk before trick or treating to get them used to the decorations that are already out. It will be less overwhelming when just the new ones are added.
Show them pictures of Halloween costumes and decorations to help decrease distractions and fearfulness.
Do animal walks or isometric exercises prior to trick or treating for increased modulation.
Talk about how it is important to describe their emotions; if they are feeling scared, overwhelmed, or nervous to tell an adult and not try to push down emotions.
Talk about sensory strategies such as taking a deep breath, closing eyes and counting down from 5, or doing hand pushes when they feel overwhelmed.
Avoider or Eeyore: Halloween for our eeyore is extremely scary and overwhelming. They will often avoid all together by crying, being very clingy, and/or melting down. They have a hard time describing their emotions and trying to use their strategies to keep from melting down.
Tricks to help:
Keep their schedule as simple and normal as possible. Try to have dinner at the same time, then trick or treat for a short bit, and be back for bath and bedtime routine.
Talk about how everything is pretend and when/if they feel scared to ask for help.
If young enough bring a wagon or stroller; therefore, if they are too scared or overwhelmed, they can stay in a "safe spot" while siblings and/or friends go up to the door.
Allow them to have a timer or set amount of time for trick or treating; therefore, when the timer goes off, they can chose to continue or to go home.
Give a lot of positive reinforcement for being courageous and a lot of positive feedback when/if they describe their emotions.
Halloween is such a fun holiday for many, but this is not always the case. Be sensitive to your child's needs and wants. Allow them time to process your expectations and give positive praise for meeting simple expectations. Making a visual schedule and using the thermometer to help with knowing where their engine sets them up for success. Talk to your child about expected vs. unexpected behavior. This gives them expected parameter to begin as to what we want their behavior to look like.
See example below:
Expected vs. Unexpected Behaviors on Halloween
Expected: These are actions and behaviors that make others and ourselves feel comfortable. These are actions that allow us to be safe and successful in a situation.
Unexpected: These are actions and behaviors that make others and us feel uncomfortable. These are actions that can get us hurt, get others around us hurt and/or make others feel uncomfortable.
It is recommended to go over this list of expected behaviors prior to trick or treating. Then give a lot of positive reinforcement for expected behaviors.
When talking to your child about expected vs. unexpected behaviors. It allows them to ask questions and talk through the situation as opposed to just saying "no" during an experience. This gives your child time to process the appropriate expectations for an event. When the event starts after you have talked about expected behaviors it is helpful to reinforce with positive affirmation. "I love how you made a good choice to say thank you for your candy! That is expected and makes me feel very proud and comfortable." Then in the opposite direction instead of "no" you can say "It was very unexpected for you to run away; I got worried and uncomfortable. If that happens again, I will have to hold your hand or have you sit in the wagon." Then you are giving appropriate behaviors and giving another chance. When your child is organized this can be a very helpful strategy and keeps you from getting in a crazy cycle of just saying no when they do something unexpected. Once your child is not longer modulated they will not be able to control their impulses as well and this can be a harder strategy to use. It is helpful to start with positive reinforcement and healthy firm expectations. When your child is overstimulated they will not be able to process this high level depending on age and their sensory systems.