How Halloween can be a less than positive experience for autistic children.
With the build-up to Halloween beginning now that it is the start of October, the shops having creepy displays or selling scary looking decorations, there are increasing challenges for some autistic children.
The difficulty with costumes
For children such as my daughter, the challenge of seeing familiar people dressed in costumes or with different hair and face paints is a very difficult one. Since she was little, it has been clear that she struggles massively with any changes to my appearance or of other family members. I have had to be careful not to change my hairstyle or glasses too dramatically as she finds it difficult to recognise that it is still me. She has explained recently that she feels it is less difficult than it used to be, but still finds it difficult if it’s not just a temporary change.
Halloween costumes can be very elaborate or involve face paints or masks, making it difficult to identify who people are. The face paints can also make people smell different, which can also make a difference to children like my daughter who have a very sensitive sense of smell. Costumes can also smell very plasticky, which again can be overwhelming for an autistic child.
Seeing familiar people dressed in scary costumes can also make it difficult for autistic children to differentiate between the scary character they are dressed as, and the person that is underneath. This can particularly cause problems if it is a family member, teacher or other adult who they normally trust, as it can make them frightened to trust or believe them in real life afterwards.
The drawbacks of having an excellent imagination
As well as the difficulties associated with everyone changing their appearance, there is also a further challenge for those children who have a very active imagination. My daughter does not like anything remotely creepy or scary, and can find it difficult to differentiate between reality and imagination. When she was younger she was very sensitive to the programmes or films that she watched, and we still have to be very careful what she watches as it can give her nightmares later even if she seems fine at the time. More recently, we tried watching The Nightmare Before Christmas, and had to switch off during the opening song because the lyrics (and animation) were upsetting her too much.
The other issue with an active imagination is the inability to switch it off. If my daughter or I see something which has scared or upset us, it stays in our brains until we have somehow managed to resolve the story. However, this can cause a lot of anxiety and stress as we try to figure out a way to interrupt the cycle and get our brains to focus elsewhere. In my case, I find that if I have watched or read something which I find scary, I have to carry on watching or reading until the end so that I know how it resolves. If for any reason I am unable to do this, I have to look up online to find out the ending so that I can tell myself that it is all over. If it’s a story which doesn’t resolve neatly, I struggle enormously to process it and put it to the back of my mind. Sometimes I even find myself trying to write an ending which will resolve properly so that I can put it to rest.
Seeing creepy costumes, or decorations, can cause intrusive thoughts. Not because there is a story to resolve, but because they can get stuck in our heads as an upsetting idea. This is much harder to shift than a story, particularly for those of us who have very visual memories. This aspect of having a good imagination can be really difficult to manage, and there is no easy way around it.
Practical ways you can help your child to cope with Halloween
Talk with your child about what they find difficult. If they are unable to articulate what the problem is, then you might need to do some detective work to figure out what in particular they struggle with.
Allow your child to opt out of Halloween activities such as parties or trick-or-treating if they don’t feel able to join in.
Be aware of where there might be scary decorations that might upset your child. For example, our local supermarket had a lot of very creepy looking decorations on sale that I know would utterly freak out my daughter if she saw them. We have also checked with our local gaming café (a favourite place of my daughter’s) to find out when they will have anything up so that we know when not to go in.
Remind your child that it is all pretend, and that the costumes, songs, stories, etc are not real.
Laura Webb is a director of NeonDaisy