Monday, October 6, 2008

Mask Games

Alex has recently become quite interested in the idea of Halloween and also with the concept of Growing Up. This got me thinking about how often children tell us what they need to learn about next. Every detail associated with Halloween is fascinating to Alex, his mother told me. Likewise, Alex likes to talk about when he was a baby and how one grows from being a baby to being a kid and then on to being a grown-up. His dad thinks he might have started to grasp the concept of death, too, after a grandparent's recent death. It would seem that Alex is intrigued with the concept of transformation--the mysterious process by which people apparently change so dramatically as to become something else entirely. It is possible that this new fascination is motivated, in part, by fear. But even if it is, Alex has chosen the smartest possible route to mastering this fear--he wants to talk and play about it. Halloween, as he has intuitively understood, is a perfect tool for understanding transformation.

The question, from any child's point of view, has to be How does one thing become another thing? Over the years, I have heard many genuine and intelligent questions from children about how people change from one state of being to another. I remember my preschool-aged brother wondering aloud when our dad would become a baby again. My mother was expecting my little sister at the time and some kind of confusing explanation had probably been provided to my brother to prepare him. It made us laugh when he asked this but it was a reasonable question given how mysterious the transformation from lump in mommy's tummy to baby to adult must have been from his four year old perspective.

My daughter, at age three, wanted to know if I was going to be living in a different house after I returned home with eight inches less hair. Children don't know, and can't guess at the full implications of a dramatic change. If dad puts on a monster mask, has he become dangerous? This is a very reasonable thing to wonder. I once heard a story about a little boy on his first airplane ride who asked, When will we shrink small? He must have observed a number of airplanes transform from huge to tiny and wondered what happened to the people inside. How intriguing but also scary these processes of transformation must be for a child. It is not surprising that a child is scared when things and people are changing in some mighty strange ways around them.

Not all children with autism are ready to learn from the theatrics of Halloween and if your child is frightened or is steadfastly ignoring the whole thing, I would trust your child's judgement. But when a child, like Alex, has assigned himself the task of understanding some of the dynamics of transformation, Halloween is a really good tool for learning. Remember that you are not just helping your child learn about the nature of transformation, you are helping your child develop emotional coping skills for transformational change. Extend the holiday before and after the one day celebration so you will have time to talk and play Halloween inspired games. The conversation and play will get richer and more meaningful as your child learns. You will not be able to fully explain the complex dynamics of transformation because there is a lot of information that one must acquire over years and years to really understand. But you should realize that the real topic is not how does a person turn into Humpty Dumpty but rather, how do injured people get well again? How do babies appear from nowhere? Why do beloved grandpas disappear forever? How do weddings turn a favorite auntie into a wife who lives an airplane ride away? What changes will happen to me in my life? By talking and playing at your child's level in the fantasy world of Halloween you will help your child feel more in control and less anxious about whatever strange transformations occur in your child's life.

There are some fun Halloween Songs and Games offered by my friends at Super Simple Songs, check these out!

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