How to Talk to Your ASD Child in the Face of Tragedy

Updated on October 20, 2017
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Christiansen's son, Jackie, is diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). She is the author of Planet A: A Mother's Memoir of ASD.

The Traumatic Events in the World Around Us Can Add Anxiety for ASD Children

Be Honest, Answer Questions and Focus on the Positive

We live in a stressful world. All we need to do to find a tragedy is turn on the television or radio. It’s easy to go to that dark place and wonder why there is so much violence in the world. It’s difficult for children to understand, especially if your child has autism. Children on the spectrum can feel things more intensely and the problems of the world can create fear and anxiety for them. When my son was old enough to understand 9/11, I had to speak with caution, knowing that a tragedy could instill fears that would impact his daily life. Here are a few tips to help you talk openly while being cautious in the face of tragedy.

Four Tips to Help Your ASD Child Deal With Tragic Events

#1 Be Honest

It’s easy to gloss over the truth when speaking about topics that are difficult. We don’t want to hurt our children or make them fearful. We want to protect them from the bad in the world, and that’s okay. When talking about things like the Las Vegas tragedy or the devastating hurricanes along the Gulf Coast, begin by asking what they already know. Many children hear about these incidents through classmates or teachers at school. You can make sure that the information they have is accurate as well. You can emphasize your feelings verbally and let your child know that it’s healthy to be sad about tragic things. With your honesty, stick to the facts and relay the information in a brief format. Try not to focus on the scope of the situation or too many details.

#2 Encourage Questions

Once the conversation has begun, encourage your child to ask questions. This way you are only giving information that your child can handle. Answer only the question and be careful not to give added information. When my son asked me if people would die in Hurricane Irma, I answered that I didn’t know. Later, after he had asked me several more questions, I could see his anxiety level rise, worried that there might be something bad on the way to hurt him. I explained that in life, we have no control over things like hurricanes, although we often receive warnings prior to the event, or even violent acts, but that these are isolated events. Also point out that police and rescue workers are trained to help with these situations.

#3 Teach Empathy

With each tragedy that happens, there are always stories of brave people who step forward to help others. In the Las Vegas shootings, countless people risked their own lives to help other escape. Natural disasters are followed by the heroic efforts of rescue workers as they go into flooded areas to find lost pets or help stranded families. These are things to focus on. Since many children on the spectrum have a difficult time feeling empathy for others, this is a great way to help them understand empathy as well as put a positive spin on the tragedies that seem to be always in our faces. You might also think of ways to help, such as sending supplies to devastated areas or adopting a stranded pet.

#4 Stay Unsocial

It may be wise to take a break from social media after a traumatic incident. There are sure to be graphic images and sensationalized news about recent events. Sometimes these can be traumatizing because many ASD children believe everything they see. It’s okay to explain the reason for the break from Instagram and Facebook. I always tell my son that once we see a disturbing image, it’s difficult to get it out of our heads. If your child does happen to see disturbing images, take time to explain them in a basic way. Also, try to reinforce that there were scary moments, but that people were there to help.

It can be difficult to explain to children why bad things happen. Even as adults, this concept is difficult to understand. The best that we can do as parents is to be honest even if that means all we can say is I don’t know. I also remind myself that my ASD son is probably more resilient than I give him credit for.

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      Deb Christiansen 3 months ago

      Great article Diane! And very timely given all that is happening right now.