Beware—it’s Halloween! That one day of the year filled with fear and fright – all in good fun of course. But some children with autism can be over-responsive to these harmless, whimsical tricks. Children with autism can become unsettled because they can’t predict when there will be a change in their environment. They can also perceive various things are truly dangerous threats. So, they may react intensely by screaming, crying, having tantrums, or even physical aggression like biting, kicking, or hitting.
Being scared of scary things to a degree is natural and important for survival. But some children with autism are unable to control or adjust their emotions, feelings, and thoughts. They have to be taught directly to make sense out of their fears so that they do not become overly fearful.
Fear connects people to reach out to one another, so Halloween is the perfect opportunity for you to get closer to your child. As a parent or guardian, you can teach how these scary things are just “tricks” which are not real, and you can even demonstrate how some scary things can actually be interesting and entertaining. You can help desensitize your child’s thoughts and feelings to become flexible through demonstration and language. Here are some tips for explaining to your child ways to cope with the tricks and treats of Halloween:
1. Mechanical things: These machines don’t interact. They just suddenly light up, make sounds, or move. Give your child the power to take the batteries out or pull the plug out of the socket so they understand it’s merely a toy.
2. Scary objects: These are fake because they are made out of paper or plastic, so with your supervision, your child has the power to pull or bend them. Another great activity would be to make some at-home crafts of little witches, ghosts, or pumpkins.
3. Scary images: Ghosts or monsters are very different-looking than standard everyday things. Have your child take control by making a regular picture look scary, or even funny or messy – any way they feel.
4. Unpredictable scares: Not knowing what lurks behind the closed doors of a haunted house can be frightful. Reverse the roles so that your child is the one who does the scaring. Have your child make her own haunted house on paper or turn your own house into a funhouse. Warn your child ahead of time that you’ve put something harmless yet mysterious in her dresser drawer like a flower or a potato. Then it’s their turn to warn you about something odd that she has put in the fridge like a sock or a toothbrush. Together with your child you can also turn the pages of a Halloween pop-up book modeling anticipation, like, “I wonder what scary thing is going to pop out at us next!” However, as a parent you know your child’s limits, and if a haunted house is going to act as a sensory overload for them then try to avoid doing activities as such.
5. Supernatural beings: Normalizing the concepts of scary characters like vampires, witches, and ghosts helps diffuse your child’s fear of them. Take, for example, the concept that a vampire can bite you. Explain how there’s no such thing as a “human bat”, and create on paper other strange animal combinations like a “dog-fish” or a “giraffe-frog” while you both chuckle. Unseen mysteries like how a ghost has the power to move objects can be compared to basic magic tricks like making something disappear or float – activities that you can have fun doing together. Adjust and change these interactions to how your child normally learns quickly – visually, hands-on, etc..
6. Costumes: Halloween is for your child to enjoy and choose their preferences. If your child wants to be a certain character but doesn’t want to wear part of the costume because they feel it’s too scary, you can find alternatives. Instead of a full-face mask, choose one that covers only the eyes, have your child hold the mask around their neck or in their hands, or use face paints. Likewise, your child can choose to hold a hat or headgear in their hands. If your child refuses to wear any costume, they can choose to wear a T-shirt that displays a preferred character, or they can carry accessories like a wand or pom-poms in their hands. As an autism parent, you know to always have backup. If your child refuses to wear a mask, then goes to school and sees another children in masks – always have it as a back up!
After these new experiences, model language that your child can use to release emotions for reassurance and comfort within themselves. You can model concepts like, “Ew! How gross!” or “Yikes! That frightened me a lot! I’m glad that’s not real.” or “Nice try—you can’t ‘trick’ or ‘fool’ me—I know that’s fake, and it can’t hurt me.” At any point, tell your child that it’s always OK to say something for immediate relief like, “I don’t like that. Please take it away.” If your child is non verbal, pay close attention to their reactions to certain things and be sure to practice signals or movements that you can identify.
These suggestions can also be changed to address other fears beyond Halloween. With your support, your child will have the control and flexibility to enjoy the excitement of this fun holiday! Keep us updated with the incredible costumes and Halloween related activities your family does, tag us on Instagram by using the #myautism hashtag on all of your photos!
Karen Kabaki-Sisto, M.S. CCC-SLP, is a certified Speech-Language Pathologist and Applied Behavior Analysis instructor. For over 20 years, Karen has been helping people with autism improve their communication abilities. In 2015, she invented and launched “I Can Have Conversations With You!™” , a life-changing social language therapy system for the iPad to help people with autism make sense of words, gestures, and feelings to have confident conversations while building stronger social relationships. Learn more at www.iCanForAutism.com.