Death, grief, and loss are three extremely difficult components of human life that are unfortunately inevitable. Dealing with death or loss is not easy for anyone, but may be an even more difficult concept for an individual with autism to grasp. Grieving comes in various forms, with each individual person handling the situation differently. AutisMag reports that individuals on the spectrum may experience a mix of behavioral, cognitive, and emotional reactions during a time of grief. The three most common emotional reactions for individuals with autism are: excessive short temperament, uncontrollable crying, and laughing excessively.
In terms of cognition, it may be very difficult for someone on the spectrum to understand and process what is going on around them. After a passing of a loved one, there is often a whirlwind of making arrangements and gathering with friends and family. These seemingly normal follow-up events may cause mass confusion to an individual with autism, especially someone who is unable to communicate verbally. As a result, he or she may end up blaming themselves for the death, divorce, etc., or will excessively worry if there will be anyone to take care of them. Common cognitive effects after a loss are: inability to process information, debilitating confusion, and repeated questioning.
An individual on the spectrum may exhibit no behavioral change after a loss, which may be due to a processing delay. This may result in a delayed reaction that could surface months later. Three of the most common behavioral reactions are: destroying valuables and property, self-injuring, and irritability. Other physical reactions may include lack of appetite and sleep, as well as experiencing body aches at a regular interval.
Reassuring, affirming, and comforting through information and routines are the most successful ways to help an individual with autism cope with loss. Acknowledging his or her feelings, letting the individual grieve in their own way, understanding differences in types of grieving, and being patient and open to discussion are important first steps.
Preparing for a death in the family before it occurs is sometimes not possible, though if a loved one is sick, it may be a good idea to read books incorporating themes of loss and grieving to a child with autism. This will help prepare them for what will happen and allow them to start processing before a loss actually occurs.
Loss is never easy and is often unexpected, making it difficult to process thoughts and emotions. The most important step in helping an individual with autism cope with a loss is to be there for them, supporting them emotionally–no matter what their emotional reaction may be–and providing them with any necessary information to aid in their cognitive processing of the event.