Explaining death to an autistic child is never an easy task. I have unfortunately had to go through it a couple of times now with both loved ones and pets. The following tips will help you begin to navigate these tough conversations with your child with autism.

Death is a subject that is never easy for anyone to cope with. Understanding death can be extremely scary for any child. Not being able to see, talk, or hug a loved one again can be completely overwhelming and confusing. But for autistic children and adults, it can be tough to understand. Understanding and coping with loss can be even more difficult for children with autism spectrum disorders.

Explaining death to an autistic child

Autistic children and autistic adults usually are very routine-oriented, and any form of transition can be extremely rough when change is necessary, as much planning in advance as possible is ideal for our routines. So as you can imagine, the death of someone close truly upsets our routine as well as causes emotions and behaviors we are just not used to.

With life, death is inevitable. Understanding how to help your child comprehend death, the emotions, and expectations around it will make things go a tiny bit smoother for everyone. Below are some ideas about how to help explain death to an autistic child.

In my life, I have dealt with death quite a few times.  When I was growing up, autism was not commonly diagnosed (especially in girls). My parents always spoke to me with adult words (no baby talk), and I couldn’t be more thankful for that.  The use of literal and concrete terms made things much more understandable for me,

The first time I ever dealt with death was when my grandmother passed away.  It was just a few weeks before my sixth birthday, and very unexpected at that.  I remember crying for a short while, then crying again on our way to the funeral when I saw my dad cry.  His tears upset me even more than my feelings. It was very overwhelming to see him cry when I hadn’t seen that before.

Find Inspiration from your own Experience with Death & Grief

From there, I did not cry on my own accord again.  I was extremely close to my grandma (seeing them every Saturday of my life up until then).  Even at such a young age, I felt no need to cry again.  I had an understanding in my mind that I knew my grandma would not want me sad.

I remember the confusion this caused my cousins and my cousin Junior (age eight at the time) to get mad at me because I was not crying.  Though I explained to him that grandma would not want us sad, he could not understand why I was not crying.  Doing this resulted in him telling me that I didn’t love grandma because I wasn’t crying.

As you can imagine by the fact that this is engraved in my memory, this was very upsetting to me.  I saw death as very concrete.  I understood that her soul was no longer with us, and all that remained was a body. The only part that ever confused me was why others responded to her death the ways they did.

5 Tips for Explaining Death to an Autistic Child

Even though my parents did not have the resource to explain death to an autistic child back then, they did quite unusual all considered.  Since then,  I lived through several other deaths, and I have learned my grief cycle.  There will be the crying that comes with the initial news, then a second smaller spell, the tears stop.  Even at a funeral, I won’t cry.  Not because I no longer grieve, but solely because that is just my process.

So from that story, let’s pull together the Five Strategies for Helping an autistic child with the loss and grief of death.

Explaining death to an autistic child is never an easy task.  The following tips will help you begin to navigate these tough conversations with your child with autism. #autismparenting #autism #specialneeds #grief #griefcycle #parentingtips #toughconversations

1. Be Literal!

Use very concrete, clear descriptions when it comes to describing death.  As you may have already figured out, those with autism speak and think very literally.  We all want to make things easier, but baby talk and sugar-coating it will make it much harder for an autistic child or adult.  Explain that their body was not able to work anymore or unable to be healthy anymore.

You may have to reiterate that they will no longer see grandma anymore.   We are Christian, so my parents explained to me that through death, her soul had moved on, but the body had remained and was not longer grandma.  That is was her earthly shell.  For me, this explanation helped me to grieve her loss.  Doing this may or may not work for your child.  The important thing is for you to remind them that they can ask you any questions and you will do your best to answer them.

Explaining death to an autistic child is never an easy task.  The following tips will help you begin to navigate these tough conversations with your child with autism. #autismparenting #autism #specialneeds #grief #griefcycle #parentingtips #toughconversations

2. Explain Other’s Emotions

I had a basic understanding that people would cry and be sad.  What I did not know was how to be accepting of other’s emotions.  I am sure my cousin’s side of that story may be quiet different.  All he saw was me acting as if nothing had happened, not showing what he felt were appropriate emotions.

Some people are able to talk about the deceased person, while others will not be able to handle speaking their loved one’s name for a while.  This goes the same for those with ASD. The best way to explain emotions is “Everyone deals with death differently,  all of those ways are ok.”

3. Grief Is Different for Everyone

Just as others may have different emotions during the funeral/viewing, so will we all grieve differently.  Your child may grieve for a very long time.  There is also the possibility that your child (like myself) may grieve only a short time.  That does not mean their love is any less, and should not be looked down upon. 

We all grieve different and need to accept that process is different for everyone.

4. Involve them

Helping a child with autism through loss and grief is not an easy process.  That said, one of the biggest mistakes that I have heard is preventing the child/adult with autism from attending the burial process.  Each person is different, so their amount of involvement may be different but does not need to be removed.  Just as neurotypical persons need involvement to understand death, so do neurodiverse individuals.

Doing this does not always mean taking them through the whole process of the funeral.  I was able to handle the viewing, but even at 40, my older brother was utterly unable to view our grandpa who had passed.  It was just too much for him to handle.

Some may be able to see the body during the wake, while others do better just by seeing the casket buried.  Explain the process and routine of the funeral and let them tell you how they feel.

Another way to go is to have a celebration of life that they can attend instead of the funeral. Doing this allows involvement without having to see all the grief. Embracing the good moments of a person’s life will help them be able to move forward in life without their loved one in a positive way. Check out these celebrations of life ideas for some inspiration.

5. Allow Time

Everyone grieves differently, and that includes the amount of time spent grieving as well as times that it happens.  It is not uncommon for an autistic individual to process a death much later than others.  This can range from days to years.  Understanding this will help you support for loved one through their grief process.

During these times, it is great to use all resources available. What works for one child, might not work for another. Here are our top picks for books that discuss grief and death with autism.

Books on Grief for Children 

Books on Autism and Grief for Parents

Explaining death to an autistic child

While this is a time that I wouldn’t wish on anyone, I hope that if you find yourselves in these moments that these tips for explaining death to an autistic child provide your some help. For more fantastic autism parenting tips, make sure to subscribe to our newsletter below.

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  1. My 7 year old prayed “and pray that granny is really dead”. I didn’t know how to respond to this so said nothing. When talking with my husband later, he said that our son was processing that she had died and would not cope well if granny was back alive again.

  2. Dana Sweeney-Jackson

    I’m trying my best right now to handle this with my 5 yr old autistic son. My husband, his daddy, passed on June 22, 2017 after being in the hospital since April 22nd. My MIL thought it would be good for him to go to the viewing, because we had him cremated, so he could say goodbye. I noticed he only cried when seeing us cry. At times he seems to understand but then he will say things to me that make it seem that he doesn’t understand.I got several books to read to him because he does love for me to read. It’s really tough on me but I try my best to talk to him whenever he says something about his daddy. One tough thing was him thinking that his daddy would re-spawn like in Minecraft. I just had to explain that wasn’t possible even though we really wished it could be.

    1. First, I am so sorry for your and yours son loss. There are not words that can take away the pain nor make it any easier to lose a spouse and father.

      It sounds like your son understands. The wanting to respawn really sounds no different than a neurotypical child missing their Daddy. When I was 2 weeks shy of turning six, my grandmother passed away. She was one of the few people I was very close with. I also only cried when someone significant to me was crying. I remember crying on the way to her funeral because my Dad was crying. I understood she had died and was no longer with us. I did not cry again. This actually became a very significant memory between myself and of a cousin of mine. He was crying and told me I didn’t love her because I wasn’t crying at her funeral. For me, I knew she wouldn’t have wanted me to cry or continue being sad.

      Everyone has different ways of coping with grief, whether they are autistic or not. I wouldn’t worry too much that he isn’t crying or that he cries when he sees those he loves crying. It is very hard to see someone cry that you don’t typically see cry, its just hard to understand. Just be open and honest when he does ask question and make sure he knows you are there if he ever has questions or worries. I was very worried about death for many years after because I did not think to talk to my parents about it (nor did I believe that if I talked to them, they’d give me an answer that would change how I felt lol).

      I hope that helps even a tiny bit when it comes to understanding his grief process being different from yours. Please let me know if you have any questions, or any other ways I may be able to help! You can email me anytime at admin@themomkind.com


  3. My younger brother 25 years old is going through grief process following our dad death, he is autistic child. Very stubborn and angry he have attempted burning down our apartment twice to kill himself
    What can I do please assist..

    1. If your brother has tried to harm himself, please take him to a psychiatric hospital or emergency room immediately. They will be able to help him with the depression and work with you both to find a provider once he leaves the hospital to help you and him both work through grieving. My thoughts are with you both in this hard time.

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