Monday 20 August 2018

Talking to an autistic child when someone dies

My Papa, the kids' Great Papa has died.    It hurts, but death is part of the process of our and our children's lives.

Our family shared time a wonderful time with him, last year in Scotland.  Less than a month ago he had visited us at our home for the first time since my hubby and I got married.  It was just a few days as our family is pretty 'full on'.  Being around us is tiring for most people. But in that time he reconnected again with all the kids, and our autistic son David in particular.  They had a special moment that will remain with me forever.

David does not understand that he won't be seeing his Great Papa again, nor does he understand why some of us have been crying.  He may come to the conclusion by himself.

However, his siblings do.  Anthony is an autistic 10 year old and Jane is just five.  Sharing the passing of their Great Papa with them has to be done carefully.  The key things to remember is to be clear and use ideas that they understand.  This will help them grieve and avoid confusion.  Oh, and it's OK to cry.

Talking about death

Being able to cope with something and comprehend what you are being told is easier if it is already part of your understanding.   Learning about the fact that things die can be introduced as part of overall education.   What happens if we pick flowers, why the bug isn't moving any more.  We try to make things as concrete as possible.  The bug's body and mind aren't working anymore.

You may also talk about your religious beliefs so this is also a prepared idea for them.  This can be difficult as it can involve abstract thinking.  Our eldest still struggles with the idea of a soul for example.   But by making death a familiar concept learnt about in a relaxed setting can make it less scary to talk about later.

Telling your child

Every child is different and choosing when to tell them that someone they know has died is important. This can depend on the other things surrounding the death and what is happening.  We cut our vacation short and went home when Papa died so I told the children straight away so they understood why things were changing.  I don't want them to over hear things and guess what's happened to draw the wrong conclusions about a conversation happening around them or be confused by strange events.

When you do tell them, let them know that you need to talk to them about something important.  This can help them focus and listen.

Avoid confusion

If your child has already learned about death then you can use the same types of language as you have earlier.   Making death as concrete a concept as possible is beneficial for many children with autism.  Using phrases such as 'passing away' can be confusing or saying someone has 'gone to sleep' can frighten a child - they may worry that they could go to sleep not wake up again.  We do talk about Heaven but make it clear that this not a place people come back from. We talk how the person died about what happens to a their body.


Although our children have not attended any funerals, it would be extremely important that if they did, they knew exactly what to expect and what would happen.  When my husband and I returned from Papa's funeral, Anthony wanted to know exactly what had happened and this comforted him.  He has difficulty separating the physical and non-physical. He considers that when a person dies that 'they' will not only disappear but their body will too. 

If his Great Papa was cremated it would signal to Anthony that he had moved on, as his body was no longer here.  In Scotland there is a long tradition of burials and so we had to tell him that his Great Papa's body would disappear into the ground when it was ready. It would take a while, but it would happen eventually.

We thought about the joy Papa brought us, looked through photos and talked about the kind of person he was. Making a photo album can be a helpful part of the process too.

Ultimately this is a hard time for everyone and we will all take it differently.   As always knowing your kids will help them, and you, through.


  1. Huge hugs to you at this difficult time xx

  2. So sorry for your loss. Thank you for sharing this advice I do think I need to start talking about death more around the kids. It is a very difficult but important subject they need to come to terms with.


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