It can be heartbreaking and complex to confront the loss of a parent, loved one, or treasured pet. We all experience grief and respond in unique ways. When supporting a child with autism through grief and loss, the challenge can feel immense. Additionally, it is essential to consider that grief for a child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can also mean the loss of a beloved possession, the end of a routine, or even divorce, in addition to death.
Individuals on the spectrum often experience grief dissimilarly to those without the condition, primarily due to core hardships in understanding, processing, and expressing emotions. However, these are not the only features of autism that make understanding grief more difficult for this population.
Fortunately, there are ways to help your neurodivergent child understand and navigate difficult chapters of life, like grief. This blog post will explore how ASD kids (including their families) can confront death and loss, specific techniques for helping those with autism manage the experience, and how ABA therapy can help.
ABA therapy can unlock many opportunities for neurodivergent children to understand the world around them more deeply. For more information about ABA Centers of America, click here.
Exploring What Loss and Grief Look Like for a Child with ASD
Everyone’s response to grief will be different. Some people respond with anger, others with tears. However, it’s not uncommon for individuals with ASD to react to suffering in ways others may consider atypical, like becoming severely withdrawn or completely non-responsive. Others with ASD may seem disinterested or utterly unaffected by loss or tragedy. This response variation may be behavioral, cognitive, physical, or emotional.
When a child with autism experiences grief or death, it can be challenging to understand them if they seem inconvenienced or unaffected. However, it’s essential to remember that this behavior doesn’t mean they lack emotions or empathy. Many neurodivergent individuals feel these emotions profoundly but struggle to express them in ways others understand or expect.
Standard features of grief in neurodivergent individuals may include but are not limited to:
- Physical aggression
- Obsessive thoughts or questions
- Fascination with death or loss (or the person that died)
- Increased or decreased talking
- Sensory overload
- Sleep disturbances
It is typical for a child on the spectrum to display these behaviors, even after seemingly coming to terms with the death or loss. Accommodating the unique challenges of a child with autism through grief requires patience, empathy, and a different approach than what may be standard for neurotypical children.
Supporting Your Child with Autism Through Loss and Grief
When helping your child with autism cope with a loss, there are several tips and strategies you can employ. These include encouraging an open dialogue and teaching practical coping skills. Being patient and understanding your child during this difficult time is also essential. Remember that no two experiences of grief are the same, so it is crucial to adjust your approach as needed.
For some people with autism, understanding and relating to emotions can feel inaccessible. Additionally, certain behaviors or challenges many individuals with ASD experience may cause additional stress and difficulty when managing emotions associated with a loss. Do your best to set a good pace when exploring these complex topics.
Additionally, if your child is struggling, discussing your options for support with their medical providers and therapist may be helpful. Lastly, it’s crucial not to rule out support for yourself during this time. Taking care of yourself can help you take better care of your child.
Here Are a Few Simple Practices to Help Your Child Navigate Grief:
1. Validate and Affirm What Your Child Is Feeling
Allow your child to grieve in their way and acknowledge their process. Try to remain objective and nonjudgmental while you discuss death and loss.
2. Teach Your Child Specific Language to Express Their Emotions
Teaching your child with ASD specific and literal language to express themselves during grief and loss is critical. Utilizing literal language enhances their communication skills and empowers them to effectively convey the intensity of their emotions and seek help if needed.
Without learning to express themselves, children with autism may become overwhelmed by their emotions, leading to behavioral issues or further distress. By empowering them with clear, accessible language to describe grief, you are implementing a lifelong skill. Communication around “concrete” topics will enable kids with ASD to understand themselves and the world better while managing unavoidable experiences like a loss.
3. Define the Finality of Loss Clearly
While it might feel gentler to say things like “Grandma passed away” or “the fish went to heaven” for a child with ASD, these concepts may be confusing or misleading, causing more anxiety. Explain death and loss in a way that makes sense to their developmental and intellectual understandings.
For example, to describe finality, you might say, “Grandma’s body is not working anymore, and we won’t see her again. But we can talk about everything that made her fantastic while she was living and how this makes you feel. “
4. Prepare If You Can
Discussing loss and concrete endings before they happen can help children with autism tremendously. Preparation and time allow ASD kids to ask questions and process the event without the pressure of emotions or changes to routine. Additionally, explain that death is a regular aspect of all life that doesn’t have to be scary.
5. Provide Your Child with Preferred Items or Activities That Help Them Feel Comforted or in Control
Keep things as “regular” as possible and surround them with their favorite things for added comfort.
6. Establish a Robust Support System to Help Your Child Feel Less Alone
This network may include trusted friends, family members, and professionals such as therapists, counselors, or ABA practitioners. Make sure everyone is up to date on what is happening.
7. Ensure Your Home Environment Is as Supportive and Calming as Possible
Parents can help kids feel safe and supported during grief by providing extra serenity, understanding, and structure.
How Can ABA Therapy Support Families and Children with Autism through Grief?
ABA therapy is a science-based approach that helps children learn to manage behaviors, acquire essential life skills, and explore inner growth. Applied Behavior Analysis offers children on the spectrum a unique avenue to comprehend losses of all kinds, including grief, among other critical concepts. ABA therapy provides families and children with specialized tools to endure tough times and appreciate good days.
By offering a compassionate and supportive approach, ABA practitioners can help families process their grief and help their kids cope with loss. Additionally, ABA practitioners will focus on developmental milestones, behavior, and foundational learning. Whether through individual therapy sessions or parent training, Board Certified Behavior Technicians and Registered Behavior Technicians can be a critical source of comfort and empathy for families dealing with the pain of loss amid neurodiversity.
Through visual aids, social stories, and role-playing, among many other evidence-based interventions, ABA therapy can help children understand the concepts like death and healthily cope with feelings. Additionally, ABA practitioners can offer guidance and resources to caregivers that help support their child’s emotional well-being.
Encouraging Hope and Healing After Grief
With the proper strategies, families with kids on the autism spectrum can successfully help them process grief and loss. It’s vital to remember that everyone grieves differently. Being graceful and gentle with yourself and your neurodivergent child during this process is essential. It can also greatly impact how you and your family heal.
With the appropriate resources and support like ABA therapy, families can help their children with ASD cope with losses in a way that promotes reflection and optimistic forward thinking. By arming yourself, as a parent, with the correct information and helpful support, you can help your child with autism through grief so they can productively manage the experience and expand their understanding of the human condition.
ALL children can overcome difficult experiences like loss with unconditional guidance, support, and compassion.
ABA Centers of America Supports Children with Autism Through Grief
ABA Centers of America understands the unique challenges families with children on the autism spectrum face when dealing with experiences like grief. Our expert ABA practitioners can help your child overcome challenges like loss by providing support plans and ABA sessions tailored to their evolving needs.
If your family is struggling during this time, please don’t hesitate to reach out and learn more about your options for ABA therapy with ABA Centers of America. We can assist your child with autism through grief and many other challenges, don’t hesitate to contact us today!
No one has to struggle alone.
Visit us here or call 844-923-4222.