When a Child with Autism Grieves

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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.