How to Explain Death to a Child with Autism

By sandra.caplesc…, 8 April, 2022
Picture of a flower.

The loss of a cherished person is always a difficult time. It’s not something we can prepare for, but death is a natural part of life—we’re all guaranteed to experience it. Bereavement is a thing we all go through, but how do you explain death to autistic children? How does the death of a beloved one affect autistic people? The only thing you might notice is changes in your child’s behavior.

For a child experiencing permanent loss for the first time, it can be a concept difficult to grasp. It doesn’t matter if it’s a beloved pet or a family friend; you might be at a loss for words to explain a normal phenomenon to an innocent child, especially one with an autism spectrum disorder.

You are not alone in this. In this article, we’ll share tips and pieces of advice on how to share this sad news.

Autism and Death

Explaining death to an autistic person is not an easy task. Death is never an easy subject, and people cope with it differently. For a child, not being able to talk, see, and touch a loved one again is overwhelming and confusing.

Autistic individuals are very routine-oriented, so any form of transition can be extremely rough, especially when you can’t plan in advance. The death of someone close truly upsets your family’s routine and causes emotions and behaviors you might not expect. During this painful time, it’s best to understand how to help your child comprehend the feelings and expectations around death.

How Might Death Affect an Autistic Child?

Most of the time, autistic individuals find it difficult to express their own feelings around death. Your little one might struggle with the concept of death and loss; they won’t know how to behave when someone dies.

Typical or abnormal grief responses are:

  • Increased restlessness
  • Anger
  • Increased dependence on others
  • Changes in sleeping and eating patterns
  • Loss of confidence
  • Delayed grief
  • Aggressive and destructive behaviors
  • Excitement

Personal accounts of autistic people suggest that they have difficulty being able to connect with their emotions, so they may not cry. They find it harder to organize and concentrate on tasks and can’t regulate their feelings. It’s also typical to show a delayed or extreme emotional response. They also don’t understand what to do in social situations like funerals, and some might experience sensory sensitivities like meltdowns.

How to Explain Death to Children with ASD

Be Literal

It’s best to use clear descriptions when talking about death. People with autism think and speak very literally, so don’t sugarcoat the issue. You may have to reinforce that a family member won’t be there anymore; explain that her soul moved on, but her body remained on Earth. This might or might not work for your autistic child, but remember to encourage your child to ask you any question about death. You will do your best to answer any inquiries.

Explain What Other People Are Feeling

The grief process is different for everyone—and your child should understand that it’s ok to show emotions in different ways. Some people want to talk to the deceased person, while others will want some space from their beloved ones. Your autistic child should learn how to be accepting of other people’s emotions.

Grief Manifests Differently for Everyone

We all grieve differently during the funeral, so your child might grieve for a long time. Or, on the other hand, he might suffer for a shorter period. This doesn’t mean your autistic child feels less or loves any less; the process is different for everyone.

Involve Your Child

Carrying an autistic child through loss and grief is not easy. The biggest mistake you could make is to prevent your child from attending the burial process, even if the level of involvement is different. Neurodiverse people need to understand what death involves. This doesn’t mean they have to go through the whole process: some might be able to see the body during the wake, and others will do better not being involved. Explain the routine of the funeral, and let your child tell you how he feels.

Allow Them Time

It’s not uncommon for people with autism to process their feelings about death much later than others. Remember that everyone grieves differently and will take a longer or shorter time to understand their emotions. It can be days or years before your child will finish with his grief. Be there for your child and offer your support.

Tips for Helping Children with Autism Cope with Death

  • Talk about the situation rather than avoid it. Explain it as clearly as possible and give your child multiple chances to discuss it. The child’s misinterpretation (e.g., the person doesn’t love the child) might be worse than the reality of the situation.
  • Use social stories as your aid. You can create a social story for your child to understand death better and add the important details; write the story before such an emotionally trying time.
  • Talk about death before the loss occurs. When the opportunity presents itself, it’s a good idea to talk to your child about death before losing someone close. Let your little one see your emotional response to the situation.
  • Look for examples. Explain that death is a natural part of life, and you can use examples you find around you, like the death of a fly or a famous person.
  • Let your child understand that talking about the special person is ok. Share your thoughts and feelings, look at pictures together, and tell stories about the person. Give them plenty of opportunities; it sometimes takes the child longer to realize a loved one is gone. You can also create a memory box of items to remind them of the deceased individual.
  • Feelings of grief are not reserved just for people. We can experience grief over the death of a pet, for example.
  • Make the concept of death as concrete as possible. Let your child know that death means a person can no longer walk around, eat, breathe, etc.
  • Begin with the illness. Prepare your child for a possible death if a family member is terminally ill or getting worse.
  • Avoid euphemisms. For a person with autism spectrum disorder, terms such as “passing away” can be confusing. If you believe in Heaven, explain to your child what Heaven is; otherwise, your child might be frustrated that he cannot reach their cherished one.
  • Reassure your child. Your autistic child might be afraid of losing you after someone dies. Reassure him that you won’t go anywhere, and you’ll still take care of him.
  • Try to keep a routine. Try to resume your daily routine; this will help decrease the general anxiety that comes with feelings of loss.
  • Explain to your child what others might be feeling. It’s best to inform your child that family members or people will cry or act unusually.

Should You Keep Your Child in the Dark?

As parents, we want to shield our babies from anything complicated, like death. We want to protect them from the harsh and unpleasant realities of life and protect their innocence as long as possible.

This can get challenging when you have a child with special needs. It’s hard to know if they comprehend the situation or don’t know how to express their grief. Even if they process their feelings differently, an autistic person’s grief is not any less powerful. Lead them through their grief, no matter how hard it seems.

When, What, and How to Tell Your Child

What a parent should tell their children about death and when to say it depends on their child’s developmental age and personal beliefs and feelings. Moreover, the death of a close relative is different from the death of an acquaintance. It’s best to provide your child with truthful explanations, even if children react to death differently.