Tuesday 8 March 2022

How to speak to my autistic and neurotypical kids about what's happening in Ukraine

What is happening in Ukraine is incredibly shocking and scary. I'm trying to process what I'm seeing.  I can barely believe what I am seeing on the TV or hearing on the radio - but I can't turn it off.  It's all over the news and it's important that I'm here to help my neurotypical and autistic kids process it too.  But how do I do this?

Basically, be honest and talk to your child in a way that's appropriate for their age or development. 

The news can sound scary but thinking your parents are hiding something from you is worse.  A clinical psychologist once told me that if you hide worries from your kids they then have two things to worry about - the thing that's the worry and the fact that they don't know how bad it is.

Start by asking them if they know anything about it

I had the news on and reports from and about Ukraine were on the TV so I asked my eldest "Do you know what's happening in Ukraine?"

It turned out he had quite a good knowledge of what was going on. As an autistic teenager at a specialist communication secondary school I wasn't that surprised that it had been discussed there.  I suspect it would have been in a similar fashion to how I would approach it.  I did however forward him some information on looking at reliable sources and fact checking what he sees or is communicated to him. 

Jane on the other hand had not heard about it at school.  So, she was a bit surprised by what was happening. As she is nearly nine and has a good understanding of the world.  However, I needed to give her time to process and to answer any questions she had.  

Not all children will be able to communicate or understand what is going on and asking an opening question can help figure out where this is.  One of our autistic kids has no understanding of this type of event at all but the another is very much aware of it. 

So, I used words and concepts they can understand and don't give too much information to process at once.

For example, Jane hadn't heard of the word 'invasion' and I talked about it like someone taking coming into a country without permission and trying to take it over.  She mentioned the word 'war' as they had recently covered WW2 at school and I confirmed that this is what was happening but currently just one country called Ukraine being invaded by another called Russia.  She knew where Russia was. 

Remember that children tend to personalise situations. For example, they may worry about friends or relatives who live in a city or state associated with incidents or events.  We know some people with friends in Poland but not anyone in or from the Ukraine ourselves.   The fact that Jane said she knew where Russia was part of her processing what is might mean for her. 

Although Jane understands this kind of thing, she tells me she didn't like to talk about it as she says thinking about it just makes her feel sad. I respect this but I haven't hidden anything from her. For example, she asked if anyone had died and I said some people had and I was honest about who and how many as far as we knew.

Be prepared to repeat explanations or have several conversations for some children.  

Some kids may find the information hard to accept or understand. Asking the same question over and over may be a child's way of asking for reassurance.  Using age appropriate pictures may help some. 

Our younger son doesn't understand about war or what's happening even on a really basic level, but he has a real knack of picking up on how we are feeling. 

Our kids learn from watching us. They are very interested in how we respond to events and it's ok to let children know how you are feeling, especially if it's feelings that they have too like anger or concern for others. It's OK for them to know if you are anxious or worried about events as it can make them feel like it's alright for them to feel upset of they do.  I don't pretend I'm feeling happy if I'm not as David can tell it's not right, but I try to control myself around them, as our son picks up on my emotions and isn't always able to tell what they are related to.    He might think I'm upset with him or something at home. 

It's OK if they don't want to talk about it - it can be a way to cope. But, let them know that they can always ask about it. 

Like I said Jane doesn't want to talk about it, but we won't be hiding things from the kids and need to talk to them at a level they understand, letting them know that we keep them safe. Lastly, if they ask you about something you don't know, let them know you'll try and find out.. thinking their concerns aren't important is another thing we don't want them worrying about.

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