Halloween is supposed to be a time of fun for kids, but for many, especially those on the autism spectrum, it can be a frightening, confusing experience. One of the scariest things for some of our kids is the masks people often wear. Whether it’s a spooky monster mask or a pretty princess mask, having faces hidden can be unsettling at best, or terrifying at worst.
If your child is afraid of masks, you can help them get used to masks gently, one baby step at a time. First, use photos of your child and favorite family members and friends. Make a small paper mask about the size of the faces in the photograph. It could be a simple strip of paper with eye holes cut out, or something more elaborately shaped, but it should not be scary in any way. Make a game of looking at a picture, then covering the face with the mask briefly, then quickly removing the mask to show, “It’s only Grandma!” This should be done in a happy, lighthearted way, laughing at the joke of the mask rather than pretending to be afraid of the mask.
Later, graduate to a real (not scary) mask that can fit over the faces of dolls and stuffed animals, and keep playing the game for fun. If your child has a favorite cartoon character that they really love, get a mask of that character to associate masks with pleasant experiences.
When your child is at the point where they are not frightened by masks on photographs and toys, try showing them a mirror with their face, then briefly have them hold up the mask of their favorite character, then pull it down and say, “Surprise! There you are!” Another step is letting them put the mask over your face, then quickly pulling it down, saying, “It’s me!” Enlist other family members to play the mask game, letting your child set the pace and stop any time it’s too much, until your child is comfortable with the concept that familiar, friendly people can be behind masks.
On Halloween, you probably won’t have your child wear a mask due to safety risks of poor visibility, but do remind them that they might see other people wearing masks. Talk about how nice, friendly people like to pretend to be scary on Halloween for a joke, but it’s all pretend. If your child is still frightened by masks, consider restricting your Halloween activities this year rather than having the festivities be too traumatic. If you think being on the streets at night with all the roaming groups of trick-or-treaters in scary costumes and masks will be traumatic, avoid it. This year, try letting them trick or treat at your own house, or at various doors inside your house, or at very familiar family and friends’ homes only. Next year, start again in September or early October to play mask games and talk about how masks are not real, and it’s just people underneath. As time goes by, they should become more and more comfortable with the idea, and be able to enjoy all the fun that Halloween has to offer, without all the fear.