There are many complicated questions that your children may ask as they grow. Explaining the concept of death can be one of the most difficult things to explain – especially when your child has autism.
While there are some stereotypes about children with autism being less emotional and more matter of fact than their typically-developing peers, this is not the case. The death of a family member or friend can be emotionally devastating to children with autism. It is important to prepare them for these situations and do your best to help them along the process.
Prior to the loss of a loved one it would be good to use everyday examples to explain death as part of the natural cycle of life. Use examples of the death of a famous person in the news or a dead insect to explain the notion of death. When someone not particularly close to the child dies, a co-worker or family associate, you can use this as an opportunity for your child to see natural emotional responses and experience the grieving process in a way that may be easier for them to handle.
Avoid using euphemism like “passing away” or “going to a better place” as children with autism are literal thinkers and will be confused by these expressions. Explain as much as you can about the persons death and the causes so your child understands exactly was has happened.
Explain to your child that during times of grief it is acceptable to feel sad or angry. Your children will look to you for emotional cues, so it’s fine to let them see you grieve.
Children with autism are visual learners. You can ask your child’s speech therapist or teacher to help write a social story. Your child can draw pictures or you can use photos of your family and home. The story should include significant details (e.g. what behavior is expected, the time and day of the funeral and that people will be crying). It may be beneficial to include how your child should react when people offer their condolences.
Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders can have a hard time when their regular schedules change. As soon as you can, try to have your child return to normal activities. This can help decrease general anxiety which can compound feelings of loss.
Losing a loved one can be overwhelming. Including your child with autism in the grieving process will help you both come to terms with the loss in a healthy way.