Sensory Processing Disorder and Halloween
Written by Rachel Ealy, M.Ed., LPC-Intern
Professional Counselor at Heights Family Counseling
Sensory processing occurs when our nervous system integrates information from our senses and organizes it in to appropriate behavioral responses, according to the situations we are in (Bennie, 2010). Sensory Processing Disorder or SPD occurs when, “sensory signals are either not detected or don’t get organized into appropriate responses” (“About SPD,” 2018). STAR Institute for Sensory Processing Disorder (2018) provides a symptoms checklist which I have included here: Symptoms Checklist. I believe that everyone struggles with processing sensory information to a certain degree. I personally experience difficulty with certain sounds, tastes, and the feel of some clothing. However, this typically does not disrupt everyday functioning in my life. We all have sensitivities that are unique to each individual, and that is okay! Like many other disorders, Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) occurs on a continuum. Those struggling with SPD typically experience symptoms that affect everyday functioning.
Think about each of the senses for a moment (sight, smell, hearing, taste, touch). My first thought was, “wow, that is a lot of information for our brain to take in all at once.” There is a constant flow of new information being organized and processed. Right now I am sitting at a car dealership getting my car worked on. There are so many new things that my senses are taking in, from the texture of this red leather chair, the sound of people talking over a TV, the brightness of the lights, to the smell of warm donuts and coffee; give this exercise a try. Now, think of a child that struggles with SPD. Taking in all of these sensations can be completely overwhelming.
Let’s talk more about what SPD can look like. According to the STAR Institute (2018), a child with SPD may over-respond or under-respond to sensations. A child that over-responds to touch may find the texture and weight of clothing as well as physical contact unbearable. These children may appear to be “picky” about what they wear. A child that over-responds to taste may have difficulty eating certain foods. A child that is sensitive to sounds may put their hands over their ears and hide when they are in a noisy environment. Typically, children with SPD experience unexpected behavioral outbursts which can look like getting upset over a change in routine or having a meltdown when entering an environment that is noisy or really bright (Patino, 2014). Children that under-respond to sensations are slow to react to sensations such as pain or extreme temperatures (“About SPD,” 2018). There are many ways that SPD can manifest itself in each unique child.
With Halloween coming up in the next couple of weeks, I cannot help but think how difficult it could be for children with SPD. There are costumes, Halloween themed snacks, parties at school, and trick-or-treating, which all involve changes in routine and different sights, sounds, and smells. This can easily become a sensory overload that results in anxiety and having a meltdown or tantrum. Let’s take a look at each of these and what parents can do to help!
Many children look forward to Halloween every year because they get to dress up like their favorite character or superhero! Children with SPD may want to dress up but become easily frustrated when it comes time to put on the costume. Like we talked about earlier, children that over-respond to tactile stimulation may be difficult to dress in the mornings and/or reluctant to keep their jacket on, for example. Wearing a costume can easily turn from fun and exciting to unbearable. Here is a list of tips that can help wearing a costume easier from Morin (n.d.).
1. Allow your child to pick out their costume, within reason. Suggest that they feel the fabric in the store to see if it too stiff, scratchy, or just right.
2. Check to see if the material is machine washable and try washing the costume a few times to soften the fabric before the big day.
3. Consider the use of face paint and masks carefully. Your child may be sensitive to the smell and texture of these items. Have them try the paint or mask out a few times, days prior to wearing it, to see if they can tolerate it.
4. Have your child wear clothing that they like under their costume to make it more comfortable. Remember to stay supportive and positive. Remind them that is okay to take off the costume whenever they become uncomfortable.
5. Have a simple back-up costume just in case. This can be a soft towel as a cape or decorating a sweatshirt and sweatpants as their favorite animal.
Class parties are really exciting…for the children at least. Who doesn't want a break from regular classroom activities to play games and eat delicious treats? However, for a child with SPD, this change in routine can spark an outburst. Make sure to talk to your child’s teacher to find out the plan and then discuss the plan with your child starting a few days prior to the event. If the children get to dress up at school, this poses another potential issue-mom or dad may not be there to help out. If you are not there for the party, make sure that your child’s teacher is aware of your child’s challenges. Sometimes teachers ask that each child brings in a favorite snack for the party. One thing that you can do it to pack a Halloween themed snack that you know your child will enjoy! Make it together and have them taste test it before the party.
Trick or treating with a child with SPD can become “tricky.” Noisy crowds of trick-or-treaters, spider webs, spooky noise machines, flashing decorations, and changing up your child’s normal routine can be challenging. Parents, one thing that you can do with your child is create a “code word” to use when your child becomes overwhelmed and needs a break. Morin (n.d.) also shares a list of tips and tricks to make trick-or-treating more enjoyable:
1. Make the route more familiar by mapping it out and practicing ahead of time
2. Go out 30 minutes to an hour before dusk so it is not as dark and crowded
3. Bring a wagon to pull your child in, in case it is more crowded than expected, to avoid other children crowding or bumping in to your child
Check out these additional resources to learn more about SPD:
1. Can I tell you about Sensory Processing Disorders?: A guide for friends, family, and professionals by Sue Allen
2. The Out-of-Sync Child: Recognizing and Coping with Sensory Processing Disorder by Carol Kranowitz
3. Sensational Kids: Hope and Help for Children With Sensory Processing Disorder by Lucy Jane Miller
4. The Highly Sensitive Child: Helping Our Children Thrive When The World Overwhelms Them by Elaine N. Aron, Ph.D.
About SPD. (2018). Retrieved from: https://www.spdstar.org/basic/about-spd
M Bennie. (2010, March 13). The DSM-V and sensory processing disorder [web log comment]. Retrieved from: https://autismawarenesscentre.com/the-dsm-v-and-sensory-processing-disorder/
Morin, A. (n.d.). Halloween challenges for kids with sensory processing issues and how to help. Retrieved from: https://www.understood.org/en/learning-attention-issues/child-learning-disabilities/sensory-processing-issues/halloween-challenges-for-kids-with-sensory-processing-issues-and-how-to-help
Patino, E. (2014). Sensory processing issues: What you’re seeing in your preschooler. Retrieved from: https://www.understood.org/en/learning-attention-issues/child-learning-disabilities/sensory-processing-issues/sensory-processing-issues-what-youre-seeing-in-your-preschooler
Symptoms checklist. (2018). Retrieved from: https://www.spdstar.org/basic/symptoms-checklist