Tricks to get treats: Autism- and budget-friendly Halloween costume ideas
Tips from a self-advocate and mother of an autistic sonBy Cassie Hauschildt
Spooky season is upon us. For some autistic children it can be especially scary. The witches, bats and other creepy decorations designed to give everyone a good scream can actually cause sensory overload, meltdowns and truly terrify them.
Then there are the costumes. The idea of simply putting one on can add another level of fright. Wearing something different can be confusing to a kid who likes to wear what they like to wear or has sensory issues with certain fabrics and colors. Store-bought options, in particular, tend to be made of a weird, scratchy material and many come with some sort of mask or head covering that is hot, stinky and uncomfortable. They can be the stuff of real Halloween horror for some autistic kids, leaving their families to wonder if they can get their child to dress up at all.
How do I know? An ice cream cone costume mishap with my autistic son, Percy, when he was 22 months old. We were so excited when we found this costume. It was essentially a sandwich board with a picture on it. It came with a hat he wouldn’t wear, but it was perfect! When we sent him to ABA in his costume though, he let us know he was not a fan. The costume wasn’t like his clothes. It was big, bulky and out of the norm for him. He wore it for maybe 10 minutes, long enough for a few pictures.
I refused to deny him the joy of trick-or-treating that night though. So he wore his street clothes. When people asked what he was, I told them, “He’s the brother from Hocus Pocus.” It’s an iconic movie most people know and in it, the teenage brother wears his street clothes the entire time. Simple, easy and most important, comfortable for my son. We have been making up our own costumes ever since, even for his younger sister.
So below I share some ideas for you to try for your child with autism and/or sensory needs. But before I do, I wanted to drop a quick note. In doing research for this article, I realized that I didn’t know what kids watched these days because of the limited shows that are on in my home. And I’m only 33. Chances are, you could say your child is Billy from the TV show Billy’s World and a neighbor handing out candy would have no idea that character even exists. That doesn’t matter. Or your child could want to be their favorite classmate and wear plain street clothes and your neighbor could say, “Wait, who are you again?” Who cares. Don’t let the expectations of the world ruin your child’s good time.
Here are some tricks to help get the treats, and keep everyone sweet, on Halloween:
When my son was one, he was obsessed with circles. So that's what he was for Halloween. It was such an easy and fun costume. Basically, he wore his every day clothes and I taped a construction paper circle to the front of his shirt. He also carried a frisbee with him, in his mouth at times.
This can be so easy with your child’s existing clothes, construction paper and some tape. Overall, the cost could be minimal, or nothing at all depending on what you have around the house.
- Favorite shape: Cut out shapes on construction paper and tape them to a shirt. Include props that are that shape from around the house. Chances are your child already loves carrying them around or playing with them. Bonus: If your child loves circles try black circles on white clothes and be dice, or any one color on any color clothes and be a polka dot.
- Favorite color: No paper or tape required! Just do a monochromatic outfit and call it a day, unless you want to add same-colored props.
- Favorite weather: Tape some rain drops, suns, snowflakes or clouds (or cotton balls) to your child. If your child loves rain, let them carry an umbrella, wear their rainboots and/or raincoat!
Strong and silent type
My son is non-verbal and even though he uses an AAC to communicate, people still try to get him to verbally say “Trick or Treat” and “Thank You”. But, when my child’s costume is a non-speaking character, suddenly they just become SUPER in character, and not different or “rude.”
Perhaps the most well-known non-speakers who would be easy to put into a sensory-friendly costume is a mime.
You will want a white and black horizontal striped shirt (or put black tape in stripes on a white shirt) and black pants, shorts or skirt. I’d recommend ditching the face paint (when it dries it can become a sensory nightmare). Optional additions: a black beret ($10 on Amazon) and/or black or red suspenders ($5-$10 on Amazon). The best part? It can be used year round!
T-shirts or sweatshirt costumes
One of my favorite things for Halloween right now are the costume shirts that you can buy on Amazon. Chances are you can find a costume t-shirt or sweatshirt that will match your child’s interests and can be used year round. On Amazon these come in all price ranges; at a craft store like Michaels you can buy the plain shirt or sweatshirt and print something to tape on. You can find these in all size from infant to adult, making them perfect for a family costume.
Who doesn't want to stay in their PJs all day? Pajamas are comfortable, reusable and probably something your child is already used to wearing. Not only are they readily available, but many stores like Old Navy, Target, and Wal-Mart have matching sets for the whole family. They tend to be warmer too, for those of you who need to bundle up on Halloween!
Let them reinvent themself
Perhaps the most successful costumes I’ve had with my son is when we went with whatever his vibe was that day. We’re not wearing pants today? OK, you’re Trevor from the TV show Ghosts. If your child will tolerate it, let them wear their clothes on inside out -- a costume itself. Or if they insist on wearing their bathing suit with snow boots, embrace them as: the changing seasons. One of my personal favorites comes from a mom I found on Facebook: her child goes as the coolest person he knows every year. Himself! He wears a name tag that says “Hello my name is” and puts his own name on it! Genius! No one can tell him he messed up that costume.
For more ideas on how to make Halloween fun for your autistic child and family, check out our Halloween Guide. Included are:
- Our trick-or-treat teaching story.
- If you child is nonverbal or cannot say "trick or treat," this sign you can print and your child can carry, if they are comfortable.
About the author: Cassie Hauschildt is a self-advocate and mother of an autistic son, Percival, who was diagnosed at 20 months old. She dedicates her time to mentoring parents of autistic kids through the tough first few months post-diagnosis. She also is trying to get rid of the negativity surrounding ABA therapy. She does this through humor while using real talk on her TikTok @AnotherAutismMom. She also runs “The Dino and Nuggets Corner” Facebook Group. Hear her journey to getting her autism diagnosis with Autism Speaks Eileen Lamb here: Adulting on the Spectrum: Realizing my autism after my child’s diagnosis.