Following any frightening tragedy, parents often struggle figuring out what they should (or should not) say and share with their children. You may wonder if your child has been exposed to information at school, overheard something on television, or seen something on the internet. Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) tend to be inquisitive, seeking to learn more about topics they are interested in and will look to adults for more information and guidance on how to react. We have put together some suggestions to help when discussing these difficult situations with your child.

Ask about what they know
No matter your child’s age or developmental stage, parents should always begin by asking what they have already heard – listen and observe as this will be the foundation of your discussion. After you know what they have heard, ask what questions they have. When you are ready to introduce the issue, be careful to only share basic information and don’t focus on painful details of the incident. Use straight-forward dialogue and explain the words you use to be as clear as possible.

Use your child’s preferred style of communication
Whether your child prefers to learn using pictorial or story-based interventions, successful communication begins with a framework of what works best for them. Teaching stories have been found to be a powerful tool to help your loved one with autism cope and understand how others are feeling. Based on your child’s individualized needs, communicate how something very sad happened and explain the emotions others are likely experiencing. For example you may say, “When someone dies, their bodies stop working. Many families are sad because they cannot see their loved ones again. People cry when they are sad. It is okay to cry and be sad when someone dies.”

Children often feel better when they are helping others, so discuss together how you can make this situation better both at school and in the community. For situations involving danger or violence, remind your child of the ways they are safe. Have your child say, “My teachers and family keep me safe by _____,” and list ways they are protected on a daily basis – such as reviewing basic safety drills!

Focus on positives
After communicating with your child, it is important to spend additional time on positive emotions to counter the weight of new emotions while processing tragic events. Provide useful reinforcers that will elicit positive emotions. Have them say, “When I am feeling sad, I can _____,” and list activities that your child likes and will help them feel better. Another useful reinforcer is to have them say, “When I am feeling sad, I can think of how my parents love and (other people) love me.” In addition to this, monitor the media in your household as further updates on the events may dominate the news and overexpose your child to too much information.

Look out for changes
It can be tricky to tell if your child is reacting in a typical way to an unusual event or whether they may need extra support. Keep an eye on them and look out for any sleep or eating problems, physical complaints, changes in behavior, or emotional problems – changes in routine could be a sign your child is trying to communicate distress. Reach out to your child’s teacher and school professionals to see if they have noticed any changes in routine as well.

In tough times, we all need a shoulder to lean on! Stay connected with our community on social media at @myautism and find out what other families are doing or saying. If you need additional information and resources, contact our Autism Help Hotline at [email protected] or call us toll-free at 877-654-4483.

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