Because Halloween and Autism Can Be Scary


Oh my goodness, Halloween is almost here.

And like every year, I’m anticipating it with a certain amount of excitement and a certain amount of anxiety. If you don’t have a child on the spectrum or with sensory processing issues, you may think my anxiety is about homemade costumes or sweet decorations.

If you do have a child like mine, you know exactly why.

Since my son was 3 years old, Halloween has been a difficult, at best, to an all out nightmare of a holiday for him (and therefore, us). It started with the Buzz Lightyear Costume in a size 3T and culminated in a meltdown over the mention of trick or treating last year.

It took me a long time to accept that this holiday needed to be a bit different for us (I can be very, very stubborn when it comes to family events. No one knows that better than my my poor son). For years I pressured and pushed and bought three different costumes and pleaded and cried and got angry and grew more and more afraid. Then, we got the diagnosis — particularly the part about sensory processing disorder and rigid thinking.

All of a sudden, I understood. I got it. It made sense.

Why is Halloween so difficult for my child?

Costumes

My son doesn’t wear regular clothes well. He freaks out about tags, socks, the wrong kind of fleece, pants of any kind and just about any long sleeve shirt – because they are physically painful for him. Can you imagine how this costume felt?

young boy in a halloween costume

Every single year, he would try. Sweet boy. He wanted to celebrate with us. He wanted to get candy. He wanted to do what all the other kids were doing.

And then the costume.

Sometimes he would cry and complain. Most of the time, he would not know how to deal with the overload and start to get angry and meltdown.

Every year – except one.

boy in green alien halloween costume

This year, his morph suit was made of lycra (Hallelujah). He loved this thing. He would’ve worn it all day long, every day. A year later, in an occupational therapy gym, we discovered that lycra has a very soothing effect on some sensory overloaded systems… and my son has one of them. He sleeps in lycra sheets now. He has huge swaths of lycra that he asks us to bind him up in, really tight; Lycra is our friend around here.

It was our most memorable Halloween yet.

Lighting/Noise

Halloween carnivals and trick-or-treating are just loud. I remember my little guy at 4, going up to a porch where other children were also waiting. As soon as all the kids yelled, “Trick or treat!“ he tensed up and covered his ears. We lasted about three houses, and then Halloween was over.

We used to try and meet up with other families, thinking it would be more fun for him to be with friends — except that more friends equals more noise and exactly the opposite of what he needed.

In addition, since my son is older now and better able to articulate what is bothering him, we have learned that the lighting has been uncomfortable for him all along. Apparently, the glow of the street lamps, the porch lights, the glow necklaces,and the jack-o-lanterns made for an extremely uncomfortable night for my son. His eyes have trouble processing light in darkness. He prefers bright light or no light. Anything in between is “annoying” according to him.

Social Cues

When do we ever ask our young children to walk up to a stranger’s house, ring the doorbell, take candy from them and interact socially (You are so cute. I love your costume. Oh what a scary little man you are!)?

For my rigid-thinking, rule-bound son, making the exception to our safety rules for one night a year was difficult. Couple that with having to actually interact with strangers — something he finds difficult in everyday circumstances where the lighting is comfortable and he is not expected to wear a scratchy polyester blend, head-to-toe outfit plus mask?

It is so clear to me now why Halloween was so awful for him.

The truth is, I wanted Halloween for me. I wanted to be the mom with the cute kids, happy and excited and racing to the next house for candy. I wanted the idea of Halloween. And I felt so sorry for myself that everyone else seemed to have children who loved it, while I was stuck at home managing a meltdown.

Looking back, I regret that being my focus. I regret turning something that was supposed to be fun into something that was painful and scary for my guy.

For the past two years, we have allowed him to participate as much or as little as he wants. This has meant no real costume and not really leaving the house. (Last year, he really, really wanted to go. He tried — twice –and then melted down. We ended up making homemade macaroni and cheese while my husband took his brother to treat-or-treat. My son was sad, but then his brother returned and shared all his candy, so all was well.)

He announced this year that he is “too old to dress up anyway,” and he wants to be the one handing out the candy as kids come to the door. I have no idea how it is going to go, with the doorbell ringing over and over and the loud children on our doorstep, but I am thrilled he is still willing to participate.

If you are momma headed out this week to Halloween celebrations with your little one, I wish you fun pictures and sweet moments filled with love and lots of candy.

And if it doesn’t go well?

I would encourage you to find what works. It might be a different tradition entirely, like making homemade caramel apples together or wrapping each other up in toilet paper and playing mummy.

Figure out what works for your little one and enjoy it.

Because one day, when they are “too old to dress up anyway,”  you will treasure your own little ritual. And you will miss it.

Happy Halloween, Momma. You got this.

jack-o-lantern with text 'because halloween and autism can be scary'

This post originally appeared on Not The Former Things.

Read more from Shawna Wingert on The Mighty:
A Letter to Jet Blue From the Mom of a Child With Autism
What I’ve Finally Realized About My Son’s Meltdowns

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