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.
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.
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
- Finding Your Own Way to Grieve: A Creative Activity Workbook for Kids and Teens on the Autism Spectrum
- Understanding Death and Illness and What They Teach about Life: An Interactive Guide for Individuals with Autism or Asperger’s and Their Loved Ones
- Help Me Say Goodbye: Activities for Helping Kids Cope When a Special Person Dies
- Lifetimes: The Beautiful Way to Explain Death to Children
Books on Autism and Grief for Parents
- Autism and Loss
- How People with Autism Grieve, and How to Help: An Insider Handbook
- Helping People with Developmental Disabilities Mourn: Practical Rituals for Caregivers
- Lessons in Grief & Death: Supporting People With Developmental Disabilities in the Healing Process
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.