Talking to your child about tragedy: Six tips for the autism community

Can you share some tips on how to help our child on the spectrum understand a frightening and violent tragedy in the news?


Today's Got Questions answer is by school psychologist Dr. Peter Faustino, New York Delegate to the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) and member of the Autism Speaks Family Services Committee. Dr. Faustino co-founded the Student Clubs for Autism Speaks at Fox Lane Middle School, which helps further the mission of Autism Speaks through education, awareness, friendship and fundraising. Dr. Faustino was assisted by Dr. Andrew Livanis, Chairperson of the Department of Counseling and School Psychology at Long Island University.

Thanks so much for your question. I think many of our families face similar challenges.  Deliberate acts of violence that hurt innocent people are frightening to all of us. Children will look to adults for information and guidance on how to react. Families can help children cope by establishing a sense of safety and security.

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:

1. Talk to your children first.
2. Communicate in a preferred style.
3. Recognize the process.
4. Use support networks.
5. Watch for changes.
6. Focus on positive.

1. 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 the 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 both at school and in the community. Children feel better if they can do something to help others.
  • If the situation involves danger, 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 a national or local 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.

2. 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 _____ (as many details you feel is appropriate for your child). 

When a person dies, the body stops working. Many families are sad because they can’t see those people anymore. The families will miss their loved ones. 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).
  • My teachers and family members help keep me safe by ____.

3. Recognize the Process.

You may notice that your child begins to talk excessively about death and dying.  This may be their way of processing images or thoughts 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.
  • Remember, that some children who deal with trauma will construct play routines that are similar to the tragedy. 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 in ways that would help your child process the event much better.

4. 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!

5. 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.

6. Focus on Positive.

Research on resiliency points to the effect that positive emotions, emotional regulation, and finding positive meaning in negative situations has on dealing with tragedy.  Pairing is a term behaviorists use to describe positive associations between children and parents.  Pairing is a process by which a parent or a caregiver associates himself or herself  with items  and activities that a child prefers and in the process acquires  “positive reinforcement ” properties .  The principle behind pairing is that as you ( the person or parent) are present in most of the happy situations, activities and enjoyable moments of the child and are seen as the person through whom the child gains access to these; you acquire the properties of these reinforcers yourself.  During terrible tragedies, it may be even more important to schedule additional time toward positive emotions and countering the feelings that can flood us when processing tragic events.

Two helpful resources from the National Association of School Psychologists may be helpful to you: Helping Children Cope with Terrorism: Tips for Families and Educators and Promoting Compassion and Acceptance in Crisis.