Navigating Halloween 2020 for Kids with Special Needs

Halloween can require some extra planning and precautions when celebrating with children who have autism. UAB Medicine published an article stating that recent studies have suggested at least one in 20 children is affected by a sensory processing disorder, and these symptoms can become more pronounced at Halloween. The costumes, extra sugar, noises and disruption of routine can all be very triggering and may lead to some challenging behaviors. This year with the additional safety and health precautions due to Covid-19, certain areas are restricting the ways in which we can celebrate, but parents can still make this a memorable holiday for their kids.

PREPARE IN ADVANCE

Halloween won’t seem like such a disruption of routine to children if parents plan ahead of time and let their kids know what to expect. Parents should discuss costume ideas, if their child is interested in wearing one, and have them participate in the process of choosing or creating it. Families can also incorporate family friendly Halloween movies during the month of October to associate positivity with the concept, like trick or treating, dressing up and the spooky décor, before the actual holiday takes place. Children with autism are able to adapt to new scenarios more favorably when they are not caught off guard and have ample preparation.

TRY SENSORY ACTIVITIES

Sensory activities are very beneficial for children with autism as it helps to stimulate the brain, improves social and communicative skills, facilitates coordination, and can have a calming effect. Lemon Lime Adventures published quite a few sensory play ideas themed for Halloween that would allow for a fun and unique celebration. Decorate pumpkins, cookies, or your home in lieu of trick-or-treating. If your child is interested in costumes, try a family themed one that everyone can be involved in.

TAKE ADVANTAGE OF VIRTUAL APPS

Trick-or-treating is unlikely to happen in many parts of the US right now, so this year is a good opportunity to celebrate from home. There are numerous avenues to try, from online Halloween scavenger hunts, pumpkin carving competitions and virtual costume contests. Parents can incorporate Zoom, FaceTime or any number of remote apps that have risen in popularity this year. Click here for a full list of remote ways to celebrate Halloween with kids this year.

While the world continues to adjust to life during a pandemic, we are continuing to find ways to adapt traditions and holidays to this new virtual format. Children can have an especially hard time with the transition and keeping some traditions alive, even in a remote setting, can help them feel grounded during this time of uncertainty.

Challenges of Transitioning to School in the Fall

This upcoming fall will be like no other for America’s children. As schools struggle to decide how to re-open safely, upheaval in classroom routines will affect every child, and most notably children with disabilities.

Even at schools that return to full in-class education, for most, the new landscape will include distancing measures including; masks, constant sanitizing, curtailed extra-curricular activities and other safety precautions. Teachers, more susceptible to Covid-19 than children, may be in short supply as they make decisions about the safety of their families and themselves.

The salutary effects of returning to the classroom will accrue across multiple dimensions. As the spring vividly illustrated, children learn demonstrably better in school than at home, an estimated 30% difference in reading and 50% in math, according to the North West Education Association. For children with disabilities, the return of therapists, mental health support and individualized education could be a boon to their progress.

Additionally, children appear to be at significantly lower risk of Covid-19 illness in school than the general population has been in its conventional daily activities. Twenty-two European countries have reopened school, albeit with the usual precautions, and not a single Covid hotspot has been reported. It is estimated that an infected child has a 1 in 100,000 chance of dying from Covid, about one-twentieth the morbidity rate of adults. (This is not to advocate for complacency; the odds are less sanguine for immunocompromised children.)

The American Academy of Pediatrics strongly supports a return to the classroom for educational, social-emotional and developmental reasons. The organization argues that children suffer in unseen ways when school is closed and moved online; they grow from interacting socially with other children and adults besides their parents, eating nutritious meals in communal settings and playing outside with peers.

Some schools are considering the pod approach where each class remains together throughout the school day. This eliminates the between-class hallway jam and mixed playground activities  that are conducive to spreading infection. If one child tests positive for Covid under this arrangement, only that pod would require quarantining.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that students should be kept in small cohorts, mimicking most elementary school arrangements. CDC recommends this be adopted by middle and high schools as well.

This new arrangement brings with it considerable changes and impact for students and teachers alike. The pod system is structured so that one teacher remains with a pod of 6-15 children all day in one classroom, eating meals and conducting all learning in the same environment. This impacts the delivery of specialist classes such as music, physical education, and other such classes. It also limits who the students interact with daily meaning that the opportunities for meeting new friends and mixing with other kids on the playground is eliminated. The social distancing requirements also mean that teachers cannot touch or physically comfort students- a significant adjustment for younger children starting school for the first time whose connection to their first teacher is critical for safety, well-being and adjustment.

“Districts should expect a longer transition period for some students with disabilities,” says District Administration, a resource for school administrators. Missing out on specialized instruction and school-based services, in addition to interruptions in routines, may pose challenges for these students. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends schools review the specific needs of each child with an IEP prior to their return to school.

Each state is crafting its own reconvening formulas based on CDC guidelines. That said, schools and parents must recognize that younger children and some children with disabilities will be challenged to follow mask protocols or observe distancing rules. Administrators planning safety procedures for the school year must take this complicating factor into account.

The transition back to school may come with a transition of its own, if Covid-19 infections across the nation continue to spike or if they flare up at an individual school. That might necessitate a shutdown and reintroduction of virtual learning. Being buffeted from in-person to online repeatedly could wreak havoc on children and parents alike, particularly those stressed by changes in routine.

Some counties have already announced that schools will not re-open in the fall, causing some parents to enlist with home school organizations, hire their own teachers, or apply to private schools. Some parents have organized social activities with their own small “pod” of families, hiring camp counselors and sports instructors to provide instruction and social and physical activities.

Time Outside

It’s July, and we have all spent more than our fair share of time inside over the past four months. In this time of cautious re-opening and nicer weather everywhere, we are all enjoying the outdoors and appreciating it more than usual. By following the CDC guidelines to stay socially distant from others, wear masks when feasible, and wash our hands often, it can be safe to be out and about in nature. Let’s take a look at the benefits of getting our kids outside to enjoy some fresh air and sunshine, while considering ways to do so away from crowds. We need it more now than ever!

The Benefits: Stress reduction, improved attention, motor skills

A pandemic is a stressful time. Disrupting routines (not only school, but after-school activities, therapies, and playdates) has intensified existing anxiety issues for many kids, so it’s a good reminder that being outside and being in nature is a great stress reducer. Studies show that even small amounts of time in nature (10-20 minutes) can help alleviate stress and make us feel happier-1. Time outside decreases cortisol, the “stress hormone,” that plays a role in anxiety and depression. In one study, pediatricians actually prescribed nature visits to families, and saw a decrease in parental stress-2.

Too much exposure to electronics can exacerbate attentional issues; with school closed this spring, many children have had more access to electronics than they typically would. Spending time outdoors can improve attention and may even lessen the symptoms of ADHD, which many children with autism also exhibit. Research has consistently shown that exposure to nature can improve concentration and even help impulse control-3.

Many of our kids have not had in-person occupational therapy, physical therapy, sports activities, or physical education in months. Spending time outdoors can improve motor skills by motivating children to engage in more and different types of activities, ultimately supporting their motor development-4. To be clear, it is not a substitute for therapy needs, but playing outdoors can give children more opportunities to improve their strength and balance than staying inside.

In addition to the above health factors, the risk of contracting COVID-19 appears to be lower outside than in-5.


1 Meredith, G.R., Rakow, D.A., Eldermire, E.R.B., Madsen, C.G., Shelley, S.P., Sachs, N.A., (2020). Minimum time dose in nature to positively impact the mental health of college-aged students, and how to measure it: A scoping review. Frontiers in Psychology, 14.

2 Razani, N., Marshed, S, Kohn, M. A., Wells, N. M., Thompson, D., Alqassai, M., Agodi, A, Rutherford, G. W. Effect of park prescriptions with and without group visits to parks on stress reduction in low-income parents: SHINE randomized trial. PLOS ONE 13(2): e0192921.

3 Andrea Faber Taylor, Frances E. Ming Kuo. Could Exposure to Everyday Green Spaces Help Treat ADHD? Evidence from Children’s Play Settings. Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being, 2011; DOI: 10.1111/j.1758-0854.2011.01052.x

4 Niemistö, D., Finni, T., Haapala, E.A., Cantell, M., Korhonen, E., Saakslahti, A., (2019). Environmental correlates of motor competence in children—The Skilled Kids study. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 16

5 https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/03/well/live/coronavirus-spread-outdoors-party.html


NOW TURN OFF THE COMPUTER AND GO OUTSIDE! IDEAS ON HOW TO GET OUTDOORS SAFELY.

The benefits of spending time outside or being in nature do not require a specific activity or a lot of preparation. Just being outside can be the goal. Some parents have the energy and inclination to run around and play with their kids, but if you do not, or if you have to be working on your laptop, don’t let that stop you. Just getting out in the fresh air is enough – even if you are sitting down with an iced coffee and your work laptop and allowing the kids to explore and play. Here is some inspiration for your outdoor adventures, be they goal-oriented or simply a place to wander.

LOW-KEY IDEAS FOR GETTING OUT IN NATURE
THE REGULAR STOPS: PLAYGROUNDS, POOLS, AND BEACHES.

Obviously, there are the regular summer go-tos. The internet can help you find the least busy spots: town websites, Facebook groups, and twitter can give you real-time information on which spaces are empty enough to truly practice safe social distancing. For instance, you may find that certain beaches in your area are practically empty in the evenings or on cloudy days. Even though it’s not your typical beach-day, kids can dig in the sand, run, and explore. Some places may even have you register for a parking spot in advance, assuring you that it will not become overcrowded.

OPEN-AIR MUSEUMS

Collections displaying buildings, sculptures, airplanes, ships, and other artifacts outside are known as Open Air Museums. Many of these organizations are limiting crowds by requiring online reservations and taking other proper precautions, in addition to the fact that they are already naturally well-ventilated. Learn about World War II at the Palm Springs Air Museum in California. Explore the kid-friendly trails on the acres of outdoor space at the Fruitlands Museum in Harvard, Massachusetts, where a group of transcendentalists lived in the 1840’s, attempting to create a utopian community. Walk amongst log cabins and stores from the fur trade era at the Pioneer Park Historical Complex in Rhinelander, Wisconsin, or visit the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels, Maryland, which houses the world’s largest collection of Chesapeake Bay boats. Before jumping in your car, be sure to check online to see if reservations are required.

FORESTS AND FIELDS

This can be a go-to for working parents who need an outing with zero prep-time. There are plenty of outdoor spaces that don’t have playgrounds, water features, or any other bells and whistles, and so aren’t typical destinations. Nevertheless, where there are sticks, rocks, bugs, and dirt, most kids will find something to explore. The fact that there isn’t a featured element like a playground or a splash park keeps the crowds away, but there is just as much sun and fresh air as anywhere else. Working parents can take a lawn chair and a hotspot and work under a tree while kids explore nature or even play with their favorite indoor toys while getting a Vitamin D bath.

SUNSHINE IN YOUR OWN BACK YARD

For families in areas where outdoor spaces are largely closed, or parents who don’t want to risk going into public outdoor spaces at all, simply spending time in their own backyard or garden is enough to connect with nature and reap some benefits. No access to a backyard or garden? Planting flowers or growing vegetable seeds on a porch or a windowsill with your kids still puts you all in the sunshine and may even bring in some interesting six-legged wildlife. And one study, conducted last year by the Detroit Zoological Society and Michigan State University, showed that even viewing animals on a screen might decrease stress.

For those of us who have been on electronics overload, having binge-watched every show on Netflix and allowed our kids to get lost in the worlds of Minecraft, Roblox, and other video games, the ability to go out again is more than welcome. Following the guidelines to keep a safe distance between non-household members, wearing masks when necessary, and washing hands frequently keeps being outdoors a healthy way to relieve stress and anxiety. We all feel a little better when we increase our physical activity, and get a little change of scenery, so put down your device and go spend some valuable time in the fresh air.

LEARN ABOUT GOING OUT SAFELY:

https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/daily-life-coping/going-out.html?CDC_AA_refVal=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.cdc.gov%2Fcoronavirus%2F2019-ncov%2Fdaily-life-coping%2Factivities.html