Grief, Loss and Autism
Author: Andy McNeil
Each person within a family experiences grief after a death in their own way. April is National Autism Awareness Month, and at TAPS, we recognize the unique ways that grief might be expressed by children and adults on the autism spectrum. We strive to make our programs and services available to all who are grieving and acknowledge that, though grief might look different from person to person, all people deserve care and support.
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.
Many resources are available on the topic of grief and loss support for those on the autism spectrum. Here are a few tips adapted from Autism Speaks and the Indiana Resource Center for Autism for parents and families to consider:
- Each Person May React Differently – There are a wide range of reactions people on the autism spectrum may have after a loss. Some may cry or become withdrawn, while others might become angry or aggressive. Some may seem unaffected at all by the death. Many on the autism spectrum have a difficult time expressing what they are feeling, expressing an opposite response. For example, they may laugh when others around them are crying. Sometimes this may be perceived as not being impacted by the death or that they are happy the person is gone. Many on the autism spectrum have explained that this is not the case and reactions like this may be misunderstood (Wheeler, M 2016).
- Concrete Explanations and Activities are Helpful – People on the autism spectrum process language in a very literal way. Euphemisms such as “gone to sleep” or “passed away” can be confusing. Explaining that the person died, and concrete examples of death can be helpful. For example, sharing that the body of a person who has died no longer works. They do not eat, talk, or breathe. You can also use illustrations from nature that they may understand something that is living and something that has died (Faherty, C 2008).
- Predictability and Routines are Important – Daily routines are helpful for individuals on the autism spectrum. A death can disrupt the sense of predictability or routines within a family unit and among individuals. If possible, keeping routines and working to return some predictability and consistency to the home after a death can be helpful. Some behaviors after a death may have to do with changes in routine. Take time to explain and recognize changes. Listen to their concerns patiently and without judgment (Wheeler, M 2016).
TAPS Youth Programs offer a variety of ways for children, teens and parents to connect with others and find support.
For more information on supporting bereaved children and adults on the autism spectrum, visit Autism Speaks or Indiana Resource Center for Autism.
Faherty, C. (2008). Understanding death and illness and what they teach about life: an interactive guide for individuals with autism or Asperger's and their loved ones. Arlington, Texas: Future Horizons.
Wheeler, M. (2016). Supporting individuals on the autism spectrum coping with grief and loss through death or divorce. The Reporter, 20 (20). Retrieved from Supporting individuals on the autism spectrum coping with grief and loss through death or divorce.
Andy McNeil, MA, is the Senior Advisor of Youth Programs for the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS). Andy is an author and trainer on topics related to grief, bereavement, and end of life.