Explaining and talking about loss and grief with your child with autism will vary depending on the individual needs of your child including their age, ability and personality.
Experiencing and expressing grief
Having knowledge of what is “age appropriate” can help us recognise the elements of a child’s response considered typical for his or her chronological development.
The way in which children experience and express grief after a significant loss in their lives is influenced by many things; the nature of the loss, the manner in which the loss occurs; their previous relationship with the lost person or object; personality; previous life experience including other losses; their physical and emotional health; developmental ‘stage’; the familial and social environment in which the loss occurs; behaviour modelled by adults in their environment; and most importantly, the availability or otherwise of understanding and loving support.
In understanding loss and death, there are 3 concepts that are important for children to grasp:
- Death is irreversible and it is final (i.e., not just on a holiday)
- Death brings about non-functionality (i.e., life and body functions stop, they are not asleep)
- Death is inevitable (i.e., everyone passes away at some stage)
Typically developing children tend to have an understanding of these concepts by 9 years of age. However these concepts are more difficult for our children and adolescents with autism to understand, and highlights the importance of carefully considering and selecting the language we use to reflect these concepts. For example, it is important to avoid euphemisms such as “sleeping forever” and ‘”left us”. We have to remember that children with autism tend to be very literal and therefore the way we support their understanding of loss and death needs to be reflected in concrete and literal language.
Each individual family have different beliefs in relation to death, whether these are religious, spiritual, philosophical, or practical, you will wish to communicate with your child about loss differently. We encourage you to talk to your class team about the kind of language or approach you might like to take in communicating with you child about loss and death.