Support for Children with Autism

Helping a Child Living with Autism to Deal with the Newtown School Tragedy

By Dr. Peter Faustino and Dr. Andrew Livanis

In the wake of the tragic events that took place at Sandy Hook Elementary School (SHES), children all over the country are asking questions.

Unfortunately, there have been misleading reports in various media outlets.   Negative and sensational news tends to be remembered more than the complicated truth.  Fortunately, efforts have been made by the larger autism community to correct the misconceptions about individuals on the spectrum.  But a connection between autism and violence puts children living with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) at greater risk for negative reactions from peers, schools, and the community.

Individuals with ASD tend to be inquisitive, seeking to learn more about topics they are interested in.  And while some individuals with ASD may choose their favorite sitcom over the evening news, chances are they will still be exposed to some information.  Below are some suggestions to help in processing information about the tragedy for various groups along the spectrum:

Talk to your children first.
Communicate in a preferred style.
Bolster resilience.
Recognize the process.
Use support networks.
Watch for changes.

Talk to your children FIRST, when possible.

It’s important that you identify what they know about the tragic events.  If asking them direct questions are difficult then listen and observe, so that you can use that as a foundation for discussion.

When introducing the issue, start with strategies that would work for all children:

  • Present the facts of the situation, but don’t focus too much on the painful details of the actual incident.  Use clear and direct vocabulary.  Define the words you use – don’t assume they carry the same meaning.
  • Talk about how horrible this situation was and how saddened people are due to this misfortune.  Explain the emotions that others are likely experiencing.
  • Discuss how you and your child can work to make this situation better (volunteering, raising money, making cards, sending pictures, etc.) both at school and in the community.  Children feel better if they can do something to help others.
  • Repeat the ways in which your child is safe.  Show them strategies like locking the door or reviewing safety drills and explain that those are meant to protect everyone.
  • Monitor your media.  News of the tragedy will be dominating the news cycle, so avoid news networks when your child is at home.  Also make sure that you monitor which sites you visit on your computer, and that these outlets are not on your web browser when s/he uses the computer.

Communicate in a Preferred Style.  

Some children prefer story-based interventions or pictures to represent a topic.  We’ve included a framework below for you to individualize based on your child’s needs:

Something very sad happened and several people are dead (some students may want more facts: 20 children and 6 adults died). 

When a person dies, the body stops working.  Many families are sad because they can’t see those children anymore. The families will miss their children. They are sad.

People cry because they feel sad. It is okay to be sad and cry when someone dies.

  • When someone dies we can say, “I am sorry to hear this news.”
  • When I think of sad things I can (insert preferred activities that the child likes to do that will help them feel better). 
  • I will feel better after some time goes by.
  • When I feel sad I can think Mommy loves me, Daddy loves me (other people in the family) love me.
  • I am safe because (insert things that help the child feel safe at home or school).
  • My teachers (principal/assistant principal/school psychologist/counselor) help keep me safe by (insert things that the school is doing to help kids feel safe or a safe location in the school).

Bolster Resilience.

Individuals with ASD learn about their own diagnosis at different stages and ages.  This recent tragedy may prompt thoughts about themselves that would not have normally been there, such as: “Why are they using ‘Autism’ and ‘Violence’ in the same sentence?”  Students with communication challenges, teens and young adults may have feelings that are difficult to articulate. 

  • It is important that you are clear that there is no correlation between ASD and violence. In fact, individuals with autism are more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators of it.
  • Offer language to ask, answer and respond to questions discussed in school or in the community.  For example, statements like, “I have autism, which means I can do some wonderful things, but it does not mean I will hurt people” can arm your child with responses to questions from others. 
  • Ask siblings how they perceive the school community’s reaction to the events and whether others are making unjust or unfair connections.
  • Rehearsed phrases or sound bites of your own can also be particularly useful for siblings who may be fearful to share that they have a brother/sister with ASD.

Recognize the Process.

You may notice that your child begins to talk excessively about death, dying, or even guns.  This may be their way of processing images that they don’t understand – a way to put reality in some sort of order.  Research shows that children who are struggling with trauma may resort to “playing out” or talking about the stress in an attempt to make sense of the insensible.

  • You may want to let your child know that this is a difficult time for all of us, since what happened does not make sense to anyone.
  • Tell your child that guns really hurt people, permanently.
  • Remember, that some children who deal with trauma will construct play routines that are similar to the tragedy (for example, one action figure shoots a lot of smaller action figures).  Again, remember that this is typical in light of a highly stressful or traumatic event.  In these instances, it would be important to join in the play and introduce the “superheroes” to help save the smaller action figures.  Such play would help your child process the event much better.
  • Remind the child that there were real-life superheroes that helped save the day – the first responders who helped evacuate the children, the teachers who helped protect the children, or the principal, assistant principal and school psychologist who rushed out in the hall at the first sign of trouble.  Help make these actions part of their narrative, if your child wants to discuss the event.

Use Support Networks.

Find out what other families are doing or saying.  Stay connected to support groups and various online networks.  Resources are available online but you might need help selecting the strategies that work best for you.  Reach out to someone you consider to be an expert.

Make the effort to increase communication between yourself and your child’s teacher, school psychologist and/or school counselor to see if there are any changes in routine that staff sees in school. 

If your school has an autism awareness club, continue to raise awareness about the ‘real’ facts about autism.  Having those conversations will help others think differently about individuals they do not completely understand.  Awareness leads to understanding which leads to acceptance!

Watch for Changes.

Listen carefully and watch what your child does.  Breaks in routines may represent his or her method of communicating to you that they are distressed.  Don’t be surprised if older, problematic behaviors resurface for a short period of time.  Be especially tuned in to changes in eating or sleeping patterns.  Changes like these can be a sign of concern.  During this time, your child may need more support in their eating and sleeping routines.

If your child continues to evidence changes in their feelings, thoughts or behaviors (problems with sleeping or eating) for more than three months, it is important that you contact a professional for additional help.

Dr. Peter Faustino has been working as a school psychologist for more than 15 years. He is Past President of the New York Association of School Psychologists (NYASP). Dr. Faustino maintains a private practice with the Developmental Assessment and Intervention Center (DAIC) in Bedford Hills, NY when he cofounded the Student Clubs for Autism Speaks. Student Clubs for Autism Speaks (SCAS) helps further the mission of Autism Speaks; through education, awareness, friendship and fundraising. He presents frequently at national conferences, schools, and parent organizations.

Dr. Andrew Livanis is currently the Chairperson of the Department of Counseling and School Psychology at LIU-Brooklyn.  He is a school psychologist and a behavior analyst who has worked with children and adults with autism spectrum disorder children for close to 20 years. Dr. Livanis serves on the board of the New York Association of School Psychologists (NYASP) as the Public Relations Chair.

Additional Resources

Challenging Behaviors Tool Kit

National Association for School Psychologist

Combating Bullying

We would love to hear from you to find out what has been helpful for you and your family during this difficult time. Please email us at nora@autismspeaks.org