When a Child with Autism Grieves


The grief of a child with autism, be it for a cherished pet, a grandparent or other close family member is very hard for a parent to experience. While most children openly cry and seek comfort for their loss, a child with autism will likely become more isolated than ever as they seek methods to block their intense and overpowering emotions. 

Dr. Tony Attwood advises that you will see an intensification of typical autistic behaviors that will last for many months as the child feverishly works to keep his or her emotions at bay. Attwood points out that a child with autism is thrown not only by the loss of the individual, but the careening emotions of everyone around him and the disruption of the world as he or she knows it.

Modeling a child’s behavior and helping them appreciate why others are acting upset are essential. Explaining that “mommy is crying because she is very sad about grandpa dying and when people are sad they appreciate a hug," then praising the child when the hug is given goes a long way towards the child with autism navigating this new and treacherous terrain.

Of course, every child is going to react to loss in their own unique way. And losses can be great or small. 

Social stories can help deal with a friend moving away, the end of a wonderful vacation and other pain that is inherent in being human. As parents, we can’t spare them as much as we’d like to and it’s difficult to even help them. I once read a poem by Kathy Pollitt in The New Yorker whose last line has stayed with me for years, “…my death is my own, it has nothing to do with you.”

The same can be said for grief.

2 Responses to When a Child with Autism Grieves

  1. Jacqueline Cazares says:

    Wow this makes sense just a few days ago my 16 yr old son Zac lost his pet bird. He was locked up in his room listening to his iPod away from everyone. The next day in the morning he told me without prompts he said a prayer for “screechy”. I was so proud of him to know that you could say a prayer for someone gone. I was amazed. Today I saw that he cleaned out his cage. Not sure if he wants another bird yet since he’s had Screechy for almost five years now. You could just see and hear the sadness he was feeling and I couldn’t not let him feel that I had to let him experience his loss. He’s doing better today he saw Transformers last night and let me know how good it was and he had fun. So I believe he’s feeling better now.

  2. Susan says:

    That’s very poignant, thanks for writing…SM

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Did You Know?

  • * In 1970, Autism affected 1 out of 10,000 children
  • * Autism now affects 1 out of 88 children
  • * Autism affects 1 in 54 boys
  • * 1.7 million Americans have some form of autism
  • * 4 out of 5 autistic children are boys

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