Therapeutic Recreation Students Prep Kids with Neurodiversity for Halloween

Halloween is one of the best days of the year for most children—with nearly unlimited candy and spooky costumes—but for kids with neurodiversity conditions such as autism, ADHD and anxiety, Halloween trick-or-treating can be more frightful than fun.

EWU’s Emily Messina, an associate professor of therapeutic recreation, and her students are working to change that. Their plan? Use realistic Halloween “practice sessions” to help kids with neurodiversity challenges get accustomed to the ghostly festivities.

“The initial idea was a joint effort between my sister-in-law and I,” Messina says. “Her company (Blooming Abilities ABA Services) works with children on the spectrum and she mentioned wanting to do a practice trick-or-treat event. I told her I had the doors and the students!”

Messina and her class of therapeutic recreation seniors designed a practice trick-or-treating area using classroom doors on the first floor of the Physical Education Classroom Building. Neurodivergent children, along with their parents or caregivers, were invited to practice techniques and strategies before the real deal on Oct. 31.

“This one we planned a lot in class,” says Michelle Boyer, a senior in the therapeutic recreation program. “We planned which situations and scenarios we wanted to present to the children.”

The EWU students designed three different stages. In Stage A the children encountered no costumes, minimal decorations and no music. In Stages B and C, the costumes, decorations and distractions were increased. The students even prepared different candy distribution scenarios: in some, a single adult handed the child a single piece of candy; in others, the child was asked to reach for the candy themselves.

Families attend EWU’s practice trick-or-treat event.

The goal for the EWU students was to create a variety of situations, because on Halloween almost anything can happen. “What if we’re handing them candy and they maybe wanted more candy, or they didn’t like the candy we gave them, or when they are reaching for candy it makes them too anxious?” says therapeutic recreation senior Leah Edens.

And the practice was just as important for the parents since these Eastern students won’t be there to help on Halloween night.

“We wanted this to be as realistic as possible,” says Edens. “People in their homes aren’t necessarily going to pick up the cues that this child could have some kind of autism, so I think this is also for parents to practice when to step in.”

Six families attended the EWU-hosted event on Oct. 16, which also included a resource fair with health-care providers to help with additional information and techniques. “All of the families really appreciated the event and the staged format,” says Messina. “Their kiddos got to practice different skills in each stage.”

Leah Edens (left) and Michelle Boyer (right), both seniors in the therapeutic recreation program at EWU.

Messina also notes that her students observed a number of positive changes in each trick-or-treater every time they went through the rotation. “It was a perfect chance for my students to set up a therapeutic recreation experience and help children prepare for the big night,” she says. Messina plans to make the training an annual program at Eastern.

Successes in programs like this one inspire students like Edens and Boyer to pursue careers in therapeutic recreation or related programs, such as occupational therapy and applied behavior analysis. It helps that they love working with all kinds of people.

“We volunteer at least two-to-three times a week, all of us do,” says Boyer. “We put on a program for at-risk youth, we volunteer with Team River Runner every Wednesday—which is wounded veterans, getting them into kayaks. It’s a lot of fun.”

“You build relationships,” says Edens. “Once you’re passionate about it, it’s not work anymore.”

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