How to Talk to Children with Autism about Death
By Jennifer Cerbasi, New Jersey Special Education Teacher
Jennifer Cerbasi teaches at a public school for children on the autism spectrum in New Jersey. As a coordinator of Applied Behavioral Analysis programs in the home, she works with parents to create and implement behavioral plans for their children in an environment that fosters both academic and social growth. In addition to her work both in the classroom and at home, she is also a member of the National Association of Special Education Teachers and the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
The only thing harder than losing a loved one may be explaining that loss to your child. Now consider explaining the death to a child with autism.
Some people mistakenly describe all children with autism as much less emotional or even “robotic” as compared to their typically-developing peers. This is not true. Children with autism feel a variety of emotions, and the death of a family member or friend can be devastating to them.
There are some important things you can do to help your autistic family member cope with this loss.
State the facts
Children with autism are concrete thinkers. Be very clear and say “He died. That means we won’t see him anymore.” Explain the illness from which the deceased suffered in simple terms. “He had a heart attack. That means his heart did not work anymore.” It’s important to explain the cause of death to children so they don’t think people simply vanish with no rhyme or reason.
Incorporate your religious beliefs
Children with autism, like all other children, learn values and morals from their parents. Explain religious customs or traditions relating to a family member’s passing. Include your child with autism in your prayers for the departed. Don’t be afraid to explain the concept of heaven (if that’s what you believe in); just use clear and concise language.
Acknowledge your child’s feelings
Be clear that it is acceptable to feel sad, angry, or confused. Children look to you for cues, so it’s fine to let them see you cry. Talk to them about how you are feeling in clear terms. Model appropriate expression of emotion by talking about your loved one. “Playing cards with Grandpa made me feel happy. I feel sad because I won’t get to play cards with Grandpa anymore.”
Write a story together
Children with autism are visual learners, so writing a story together about the loss can help your child make sense of all that’s happening. Your child can draw pictures for the story, or you can use real pictures of your family, your home, and even the church where the service will take place. Writing a story about the funeral will help prepare him or her for what’s to come and what behavior is expected of him. He may need to be prepared if you would like him to receive visitors and accept condolences. For example, write, “If someone says I’m sorry for your loss, I will say Thank you.” Include the days and times of the services, clothing he is expected to wear, and the sequence of events in the story.
Losing a loved one and managing the days that follow can be overwhelming. Including your child with autism in the grieving process will help you both come to terms with the loss and move forward in a healthy way.