Speech therapy for kids who have poor language or speech skills or or non-verbal toddlers and have additional sensory issues is common. What parents need to know is that studies have shown that kids with sensory issues have a more difficult time with their speech and language and importantly have more difficulty making progress with speech therapy.
This makes a lot of sense to speech therapists who sometimes have a harder time getting a child with sensory issues (diagnosed or not) focusing during online speech therapy sessions. This difficulty focusing can happen when a child is supposed to be attending to the speech language pathologist during online speech therapy or when they are engaged in learning via parent coaching.
Sensory processing issues happen when a child has a hard time with getting and responding to information that comes through the senses. These children (or adults) can have a response to any input from their senses such as light, smell, touch, taste or sound. The response can be anything from mild to severe. A child who is in a situation where they are experiencing sensory integration difficulty or sensory overload may appear as hyperactive, resistant to touch, yell or appear restless. They may also often put things in their mouth to attempt to regulate their sensory overload feeling.
During the holiday season, many parents are preoccupied with preparations like decorating the house, cooking or entertaining visitors. In previous years the speech language therapists at Therapy Works Together got many requests from parents of little clients about how to handle frequent outbursts and tantrums during the holiday season. We have seen that kids who are non-verbal or late talkers do have more difficulty expressing themselves and tantrum more. But now we see that kids who have a sensory issue also experience difficulty with their speech and language skills.
The speech therapists at Therapy Works Together decided to dig into their toolbox to make a short list of what can help most for non-verbal toddlers or kids with speech-language difficulties who also have sensory processing issues so that they can be in a “ready learn state.” Whether learning is for language or speech skills or any other skills that a child needs, kids need their bodies to feel good so that they can focus on what it is they are learning.
This list from the speech therapists was modified to accommodate Halloween. One of the holidays kids love most but also one that has a lot of sensory stimulation around it. Halloween is a favorite holiday for kids. Yet everything surrounding it: trick-or-treating, getting dressed in new and strange clothing, crowded places, loud noises and scary events can put a child with sensory issues in a very uncomfortable situation. They can become overwhelmed.
So we wanted to make Halloween a sensory-friendly holiday for our speech and language kids. And there is good news! With a little bit of planning, all children can enjoy and take part in the holiday festivities. Parents can relax and enjoy it as well. If your toddler has a speech delay, is non-verbal (due to apraxia of speech or other diagnosis), has Autism Spectrum Disorder or is a late talker, these tips could help take the edge off. We’ve seen parents report that when their child has their sensory issues addressed, they can make improvements in the speech and language development and therapy.
Tip 1 – Routines
Routines are very important for children, and even more so for those with sensory issues. Kids with speech and language issues also can’t always verbalize when they are feeling dis-regulated or uncomfortable physically, and how that is affecting them inside. They just don’t have the words. When parents know that there will be a new event coming up – such as a party or going trick or treating, they can try to have other routines stay regular as much as they can around the holiday. This helps a non-verbal child who needs speech therapy to feel safe and confident during festivities.
Speech therapists also recommend talking about an upcoming change in the schedule in advance of the event. They can use simple language that is at their child’s language level so that they know what is coming up. For children with receptive language issues, parents can use visuals like photos of upcoming events (is there a poster for a party coming up? or a short video you can watch together to introduce the idea?)
Tip 2 – Costumes
Kids with sensory issues can be very hard to tolerate. One suggestion is to bring your child to shop for costumes with you and let them feel the different fabrics and textures to see what he’s comfortable with. They can even try it on to see if there is any issue with a particular fabric on their skin. Some kids should also have a chance to look in the mirror so that they can see what they look like with it on, and not be surprised a few minutes before going out trick or treating. Parents can also let their child wear the costume a few times so that the child can sit, stand and explore movement in the costume. We have also seen some parents bring a spare Halloween themed simple t-short to change into in case their child just doesn’t want to be dressed up any more. Kids with Autism may have an easier time wearing a t-shirt that looks like a costume instead of a full-on costume made of different fabrics.
Tip 3 – Practice Loud Noises, Bright Lights & Things that Go Boo!
There are so many resources these days to help your child understand what to expect during Halloween night. You can think of going to the Halloween story to practice, explore and interact with lights, sound making objects and pictures of what they might see in real life during a night out trick or treating. Speech and language therapists encourage using fun words that are holiday appropriate so that they will be prepared for the holiday as well. You can teach your late talking toddler or non-verbal toddler who is getting speech therapy online vocabulary words: boo! Scary! Trick or Treat! and more.
Here are some great books our speech therapists like to use during online speech therapy sessions:
It’s Mouse’s First Halloween! Join the mouse as he hears all sorts of new sounds on this fun holiday. You can read the real book to your child or watch it being read online here. This one is best for little toddlers who may be late talkers or speech delayed.
The Little Old Lady Who Was Not Afraid of Anything. This is one of our speech therapists favorite books. The little old lady goes out on a walk and runs into some interesting things along the way. She is not afraid if anything so she keeps on going. Find out who knocks at her door at the end of the book. It
Tip 3 – Social Interaction
Halloween is (like many other holidays) a social event. For children with speech and language delays or those that have a diagnosis like autism or apraxia of speech, they may struggle with language around being social and just the social interaction itself. Kids with sensory issues may become overwhelmed and not know how to deal with many people around them. The noises, costumes and intensity of Halloween might make it difficult for a child who can deal with many people, all of a sudden lose their ability to regulate.
Again, this is an opportunity to practice how to behave in this situations. For example, speech therapists suggest practicing what to say when someone compliments your child’s costume. Speech therapy online is a great and safe way to practice these language skills since there is distance from the real event and your child can feel safe at home. Speech therapists also suggest practicing what to say during trick-or-treating. You can practice saying: Trick-or-Treat! Thank You! and Happy Halloween!
And for kids that have a hard time talking such as those with apraxia of speech, late talking toddlers, selective mutism, autism or are non-verbal for any other reason, we speech language pathologists do not like to have them be excluded from any activity. Why? Because watching their peers interact with the world and allowing them to be a part of that is a critical part of developing age appropriate skills. Saying ‘trick or treat’ to get some candy should be a part of every child’s Halloween experience.
The speech therapists at Therapy Works Together made a great printable PDF that parents can download. It’s a sign that their a non-verbal child can hold up after they knock on the door to request candy. Best of all it’s free! We love to see kids hold it up with pride and get to choose a candy just live everyone else.
Tip 4 – Trick-or-Treating
By the end of the day, everyone in the family can be overwhelmed. Parents can keep things manageable by attending Halloween parties or trick or treating early to minimize stress and avoid the crowds. You can also aim to get your child into bed at their usual time to avoid them being overtired and having a meltdown or tantrum.
If you have a child who is a sensory seeker or needs a lot of sensory input, you can let them do something physical before you go trick-or-treating. During speech therapy online, our speech language therapists have even instructed parents to have their child jump on a trampoline, carrying something heavy (pumpkins!), or play tug of war before a session so that they can attend to learning better. You can do the same before joining the holiday activities.
For kids that may become scared easily or get over-stimulated when things are too bright or intense, you can teach them a code word or phrase so that you know they have had enough. Something like “time to go” or “no more” usually works for kids of any age and it’s easy to learn and remember. Some kids who have a hard time with a lot of noise might even benefit from earplugs, but remember to try those out in advance. We don’t recommend trying earplugs for the first time during Halloween.
For kids that don’t feel they want to go out at all, consider creating a trick or treat even at home! You can have family members wait behind the door of different rooms and let your child go knocking to get their treat.
The speech therapists at Therapy Works Together hope that you have a fun and safe holiday. When things go smoothly, everyone in the family has more fun. If you have any additional tips or want to send us a photo of your child using one of our Trick or Treat cards for Non-Verbal kids, we’d love it!
We hope these suggestions help you have a smooth and fun holiday. If you have additional tips that we didn’t cover, please share them in the comments.