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Autism and Grief: How to Support Your Child Through Hardship


Everyone handles grief and loss at their own pace, and rarely is it easy. No matter the circumstance, losing a parent, loved one, or beloved pet can bring forth various feelings of grief, loss, and emotional turmoil. For a parent or caregiver of someone with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), handling this distress proves even more difficult for themselves and their child. People with autism can experience grief differently than their neurotypical peers, and the causes for these emotions can vary greatly. Therefore, approaching the relationship between autism and grief can be tricky.

At ABA Centers of Florida, we pride ourselves on giving parents and caregivers various tools to provide the ideal support their child needs. Since properly addressing emotional distress in those with ASD and offering remedial opportunities is the best way to alleviate grief and despair, it’s essential to have specific strategies at your disposal. Let’s explore some tips to support your child through hardship and closely examine how autism and grief impact each other.

What is the Relationship Between Autism and Grief?

The connection between autism and grief can be complex. In many cases, individuals with ASD experience difficulty appropriately managing grief due to core hardships in processing, understanding, and expressing their emotions. However, these challenges don’t mean individuals with ASD don’t experience feelings of distress or loss. For many living with the condition, autism affects how they express these feelings. Response variations can be cognitive, physical, emotional, or behavioral.

Children and teens on the spectrum can display many different behaviors as a response to grief or the end of life. While anger and sadness remain the most popular expressions, some people with ASD may seem inconvenienced or unaffected by the situation. They may seem as if they don’t care or are uninterested in talking about it. However, this display doesn’t mean they feel no empathy; instead, they may struggle with expressing their emotions in a way that others can easily understand and connect with.

Some of the most common displays of grief for individuals on the spectrum include:

  • Anxiety
  • Confusion
  • Obsessive thoughts or questions
  • Fascination with death or the heavy impacts of the loss
  • Increased or decreased communication
  • Elopement
  • Sensory overload
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Physical aggression
  • Self-injury

Tips for Supporting Children With ASD Through Grief and Loss

Parents and caregivers have plenty of options for supporting a loved one dealing with grief – it’s a matter of understanding the situation. Remember to be patient and compassionate toward what the person is going through and be aware that no two experiences of grief are the same. Check out these tips to aid in your support:

1. Validate and Affirm Their Feelings – You should always allow your child to grieve in their unique way. Acknowledge this process and remain objective and nonjudgmental when discussing the death, loss, or other sources of these emotions. Try not to shift the matter to your perspective, especially at first. Instead, offer them space to consider their thoughts on the situation.

2. Set a Good Pace for Yourself – At some point, you will have to discuss the difficult situation with your child. Try to pace these interactions in a way that benefits both sides. Don’t relay too much information initially, but don’t dance around the subject for too long. Part of accepting and overcoming grief is working through the events to find closure and peace of mind.

3. Teach Your Child Ways to Express Their Emotions – If your child struggles to showcase their emotional state, you can significantly benefit from teaching them techniques. Children with autism often use ‘literal language’ without realizing it, which can help when talking with them. Utilizing ‘literal language’ enhances their communication skills and allows them to effectively convey their emotions or seek help if required.

Children with autism can become easily overwhelmed without this skill. If a child can’t adequately express themselves, it may lead to behavioral issues exacerbating this distress. For this reason, it’s essential to use clear and accessible language to describe grief and discuss concrete topics that enable these children to understand themselves and the world around them properly.

4. Clearly Define the Concept of Loss and Death – Elaborating around the concept of death may seem ideal, but doing so often confuses those with ASD, preventing them from fully understanding the situation. Phrases like “grandpa passed away” or “our cat went to heaven” may be confusing or misleading and can cause even more anxiety. Instead, explain these concepts in a way that appeals to your child’s developmental and intellectual grasp.

An example of describing finality may look like this: “Our cat’s body no longer works, and you won’t see them again. Instead, we can talk about all the amazing moments we had with our pet while it was living and how they made you feel.” Prepare for this conversation beforehand to ensure your explanation works optimally.

5. Create a Nurturing Home Environment – Providing indirect support is invaluable to your child or loved one as they process and regulate their emotions; this begins with creating a nurturing home environment where your child feels as safe and calm as possible.

However, there’s a balance when establishing this environment. Keeping things regular and adhering to your standard routines can provide comfort and a sense of normalcy. Still, you may also want to consider being flexible with certain aspects – whether that means letting them play with their favorite toy for longer, having them choose a TV show, or getting a new batch of their favorite snack. Give your loved one space to work through their thoughts and experiences with items or activities that help them feel in control.

6. Find Additional Support – Never shy from utilizing additional support streams and services. This network can include trusted friends, family members, or professionals such as counselors, therapists, or autism care providers. Children dealing with grief can significantly benefit from ABA therapy services while talking with someone close can help you learn valuable techniques when caring for your child.

ABA Therapy For Autism and Grief

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy is a science-based approach to autism care that helps children acquire essential life skills and learn to manage their behaviors. Children learn to comprehend losses of all kinds, including grief, through comprehensive and tailored programs catered to their unique skill sets. ABA therapy also gives families the resources to endure challenging times as a unit rather than individually.

The ABA Centers of Florida team employs many ABA practitioners, such as Board Certified Behavior Technicians (BCBAs) and Registered Behavior Technicians (RBTs), to focus on developmental milestones, behavior, and foundational learning. They may use visual aids, role-playing, social stories, and other evidence-based interventions to bring meaningful change in the lives of those on the spectrum. Proper coping with grief and loss is one of the many strategies taught during ABA sessions.

Support Your Child with ABA Centers of Florida

If your child needs additional support with handling grief, loss, or emotional distress, don’t hesitate to consider ABA Centers of Florida’s comprehensive autism care services. We offer ABA therapy services from our clinics and in-home to give you all the flexibility you and your family need. We also prioritize early intervention to teach children necessary coping skills from a young age to prevent challenging situations in the future.

Call us at (772) 773-1975 or visit our website for additional information regarding autism and grief or to schedule a free consultation.

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