With Halloween just around the corner, students with autism are beginning to get both excited and anxious about their Halloween school celebrations. As an experienced special education teacher, I was always nervous for my students on Halloween because I wanted nothing more but for them to have a successful and FUN day. Halloween celebrations at school can be very challenging for teachers and parents but especially for a student with autism. Below are five suggestions from my special education experience on how to make the Halloween school celebrations a treat!
A change in schedule can be very anxiety-provoking for a student with autism. Although most of my students would be excited for Halloween fun, the change in routine was difficult and tended to produce more negative behaviors. Teachers need to anticipate these challenging behaviors and set reasonable expectations for each individual student with autism. Some students will be comfortable doing their routine academic work; however, most likely you will need to put the academic expectations at a lower level. This is a great opportunity to do some maintenance work that the student has already mastered. A day off of new academic material will help reduce negative behaviors on such a fun-filled day.
Front loading is a way to help prepare a student with autism to know what will happen on the day of the Halloween celebration. An example of front loading would be reading books about Halloween so that the student understands the concept of the holiday. This is a great opportunity to work on social skills that are used on Halloween through role play. A week or two prior to Halloween, the students can practice handing out candy to friends, greeting others, using manners, and waiting for a turn.
Social stories are a great tool to use during all holiday celebrations. Social stories give specific instructions to the student as to what to expect, what is expected of them, and the perspective of others. During Halloween, the teachers and parents can utilize social stories to focus on many different skills. The teacher could provide the parents with a social story to read at home that focuses on using manners while trick or treating, using safety crossing streets, staying with their group while walking, and waiting patiently for the candy. Suggested social stories at school are: asking for breaks when over stimulated; sitting in a group for activities; and asking friends to share supplies.
Visual schedules help students with autism stay on task, reduce anxiety, and help the student navigate through their day successfully. Having a visual schedule is important for every school day, but it is extremely important when there is a holiday celebration. I cannot emphasize this enough: Not providing a visual schedule is like running a marathon without running shoes. A visual schedule of the entire day might already be in place but taking it a step further will have stronger results. For instance, if you are having the Halloween celebration for one hour, then break that hour into segments with the specific activities that the student will be enjoying. Here is an example for a student that can read and does not need picture visuals in their schedule:
|1:00 (10 minutes)||
Circle Time with Halloween book
|1:10 (10 minutes)||Pass out candy to friends|
|1:20 (30 minutes)||Halloween projects and games|
|1:50 (10 minutes)||Clean up|
|2:00 (10 minutes)||Halloween Treat|
General education and special education teachers need to coordinate a plan of action in advance. As a special education teacher, I was always able to better support my students for inclusion if there was a change in the schedule when I knew the exact changes to the schedule and specific activities that would take place. It also allowed me to determine how much time my students should spend in the general education classroom and what activities would be the most beneficial. Having advance notice of the celebration plans allows both teachers to make modifications, a visual schedule, and a social story to help support the student.
Strong communication with parents will also make Halloween celebrations run more smoothly. Parents will be able to give great insight on how their child has reacted to holiday celebrations in the past. For Halloween celebrations, students tended to be most excited about their costume. Teachers can be prepared for the costume excitement by communicating with each parent prior to the celebration day. Some costumes can be tricky and most likely the student with autism will want it to look exactly like the way that their parent put it on or the picture on the costume bag. One year I had a parent send me a picture of the way she put on her child’s face make-up so that I could put it on at school before the Halloween celebration. A simple picture allowed me to make the student look like a cat and, most importantly, avoid a heartbreaking meltdown for the student. The student was beyond happy and was all smiles for the rest of the day as a cat.
We were all kids once and need to remember the purpose of Halloween is to have fun using our imagination and eating candy like we’ve never had it before. These simple suggestions will help make your students’ Halloween celebration sweeter than candy corn!
by Megan Coultas, AHSS Care Team Member and taught in an ASD classroom for 7 years