Have you ever wondered why some things are widely accepted at Halloween and so deeply inappropriate at other times of the year? As adults we have the ability to sort through the social norms associated with this holiday, and it is automatic to us that when we see a grave on someone’s front lawn that it’s fake. Strangers aren’t allowed to give kids candy for 364 days a year, but on Halloween it is totally OK. The scary faces that we carve into pumpkins are considered family fun for the holidays, but check out the photo on this page – scary!
To be honest, some kids are straight-up terrified of Halloween! And can you blame them?
This holiday is frightening for most typically-developing young ones. As they get older, they learn how to navigate the “holiday context” and realize that every child-sized skeleton on the shelves of the supermarket is made of plastic. Kids with Autism Spectrum Disorders take life a lot more literally. You might be surprised that the same kid who explained the Civil War to you back when you were changing his diapers is now still scared of the Halloween aisle in Walgreens at the age of 6. Information is a comfort to kids with delayed emotional understanding, whereas the world of make-believe is a terrifying unknown and causes great anxiety.
(1) Be really upfront about the difference between REAL and FAKE.
When you are at the store, take a walk through the Halloween aisle. If your child is scared, hold his/her hand and make it quick – you don’t want to traumatize the poor kid, but you do want to desensitize them. When kids have been exposed to the skeletons, masks and other spooky items, it becomes less scary for them on the night of Halloween. Allow them to touch the items, press buttons on battery-operated toys and laugh with them because they are all pretend. They are just toys!
(2) Explain why it is OK to joke about death at Halloween and not OK the rest of the year.
Some kids might be fascinated by death, and it is probable that those with social differences will have a hard time distinguishing between appropriate and inappropriate times/places to speak about death. Death is usually treated as a very sad topic, and suddenly in October there is a holiday celebrating blood and gore. If you don’t explain to your child about time and place, things could get very awkward next time a kid comes into school saying their Grandma passed away. A great way to reinforce the idea is to use role play – or for older kids – car rides are a great time to discuss the purpose and history of Halloween.
(3) Always accompany your kids when they go Trick or Treating.
It is unsafe for kids to get candy from people they do not know for every other day of the year. It seems like a very 80’s concept, but stranger danger is still something to consider. In the interest of our children’s safety, make sure you explicitly explain to your child that they should never eat or accept candy from people they don’t know without first checking in with an adult that they do know. Likewise, in San Francisco (and probably most other places) it is considered unsafe for kids to Trick or Treat without their parents or carers present. Again, be very purposeful and overt about the way you explain this practice. Go overboard, and let them say, “I get it! I get it!”- but for safety’s sake – make sure they get it!
(4) Encourage them to be a part of the holiday, for social skilling purposes.
Being part of a group is difficult for kids with social difficulties. Just because somebody is scared of something doesn’t mean they should automatically be exempt from it – we would never grow as whole people if we refused to face our fears. Though, all things in moderation! See what your child can handle, and stretch them a little further than that. Encourage your child to go to the store and pick out a costume themselves, let them help decorate the house and make holiday treats. Once they have some ownership of a task, they are much more likely to get involved with other kids when it comes to Halloween night.
Have fun – and Happy Halloween!