'Halloween could tip a child into a meltdown' - Society explains challenges for children with autism

'Halloween could tip a child into a meltdown' - Society explains challenges for children with autism
Lucy Dollard.

Halloween is supposed to be an enjoyable time for everyone, but for children with autism it can be very frightening.

For Maria Dollard, whose daughter Lucy, who has been living with autism since being diagnosed at the age of five, Halloween can be a tricky time and for others it can lead them into a high state of confusion and even a “meltdown”.

Ms Dollard, who also works with children on the autism spectrum and lectures on the issue at University College Cork, said: “Children and adults on the spectrum frequently experience the world as a hostile and confusing place.

“Halloween may present a challenge to some for a number of reasons. Sensory processing differences, understanding social rules and consequently the anxiety that results.

“It is a time when many of the expected behaviours we teach children go out the window, we wear clothing that is not the usual, encourage children to ask for and accept treats from strangers and add to that the sounds of fireworks going off.

“All these changes can leave a child on the spectrum in utter confusion and in a high state of anxiety.”

It is estimated by the Irish Society for Autism that there are 13,000 children under the age of 12 with autism, 5,500 children aged from 12 to 18 with another 54,500 adults.

“It is difficult to estimate as the diagnostic rate has increased significantly in recent times but there may be a great deal of people who would meet the criteria had it been applied to them as children,” explained Ms Dollard who liaises with the society.

She explained costumes that most children wear without a second thought may be felt as intolerably uncomfortable or sounds of fireworks might be experienced as frightening or even painful.

In addition to that, most autistic people, especially children can have difficulty with what is expected social behaviour. Parents will try to teach their children rules like not going to strangers houses but then tell children it is okay on this day of the year.

“Some children may struggle with this as black-and-white thinking and rule-based thinking tend to be a more usual way to think for people on the spectrum. The sound of fireworks can affect children in two ways. It may be perceived as painful to a child with hyper sensitive hearing.

“Even if the child does not have hypersensitive hearing, they may experience extreme anxiety because they do not know where a sound is coming from or if it presents a danger or a threat.

“The ensuing anxiety can cause the child to be on high alert to such an extent that it wont take a lot of extra stress or sensory overload to tip a child into a meltdown.”

The lecturer, who lives in Kilkenny city with her family, believes that that the general public does not understand autism very well and that many people still see autism as being a condition, “that exists along a line".

“It is more like a condition that moves around within a globe. A child who is non-verbal or minimally verbal may be able to cope with a lot of Halloween festivities but a child who usually presents as quite capable in most other circumstances may really struggle with these festivities.

“They may truly want to be part of the fun with other children but be completely overwhelmed by the sudden change in expected social behaviour, scratchy costumes and sudden loud noises that sound like bullets and bombs. People often expect children to be able to cope with all this change when they really struggle.”

The mother advises the public to stop and think before they rush to judgement when they see a situation that looks unusual.

“For example, if a child looks like they are having a tantrum, it might be a meltdown. If a child looks too old to be trick or treating, they might be autistic or have some other condition that means they do not perceive themselves as too old. Thankfully now Lucy, who is 26-years-old, says she loves Halloween and isn’t so afraid of fireworks and ghosts.

“Sometimes it takes many Halloweens for a child to become comfortable enough to learn to enjoy the experience, by that time they may be a little older than expected and nay be rejected by people who refuse to give they child any sweets.

“People need to be sensitive to these children. they are children and on a personal journey towards the adult world. If you see a parent or adult who seems to be distressed, do not lay your hands on them but ask in a quiet voice if you can do anything to help.

“If you see a parent who seems to be struggling do the same. 'Is there anything I can do to help?' Don't judge negatively or assume that your way of perceiving or experiencing the world is the same as theirs.

"As the world renowned Professor Mary Temple Grandin said, the world needs all kinds of minds, we need to cherish and value every person regardless of their difference.”

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