Death in the Family – Handling difficult situations for autism students

Autism death. This post is all about handling difficult life situations for students with autism. Helping a student with autism understand death in the family can be a challenging process.  Here’s how teachers helped one family manage that situation.

Death in the family

Helping autistic students understand unexpected situations is not easy. It’s very helpful to plan ahead to give a student information about something unusual that is going to happen in his or her life.  Giving that information in a visual form helps students understand better than just telling them.  Frequently, our students with autism or Asperger’s need extra help to really grasp something unusual for them like a death in the family.

A teacher shared this story

I had a student whose life was about to change in a major way. You see, his grandfather, who was his favorite person in the whole wide world was diagnosed with cancer.

This little boy’s family was concerned about how they would explain what was happening and wondered if he would understand why he didn’t see his grandfather anymore.

His treatment team decided that we would use story books to explain what was happening to his grandfather. We created a book of stories showing the relationship between this child and his grandfather, what was happening to his grandfather, and how the relationship was changing.

We covered the period from the time of his grandfather’s diagnosis, through hospitalization and hospice, his death, funeral, and burial.  This was a Christian family who also wanted their son to know that his grandfather had gone to live with Jesus, so we incorporated that into the stories too.

Some months later after his grandfather’s death, the child’s mother reported to me that while they were relaxing at home one day, her son looked at a picture of the Virgin Mary and Christ Child that was hanging on the wall and uttered his grandfather’s name.

Prior to his grandfather’s illness, this little boy would frequently run to the window, anxiously awaiting the visits from his grandfather. After his grandfather’s death, he no longer did this.

I know that these visual strategies worked. I am a witness.
Pam Martin

The power of visual strategies

One extremely important way to use visual strategies is to give information to students. That’s what these teachers did.  By creating a collection of stories, they were able to address each topic separately. That often works better than trying to tackle many topics all in one story.

Writing information to create a little book is important. (I really like notebooks or 3-ring binders). That provides the opportunity to revisit that information over and over while experiencing the series of events. Adding photos to the book can help. If it isn’t possible to take photos ahead of time, they can be added during the sequence of events.

Be sure to keep the book. It can be just as valuable after the events. It’s a useful tool to answer questions and support conversation about everything that happened. More information can be added even after the event has occurred.

One more thing . . .

This strategy can work well even if the student cannot read.  Just read the information to him like you would read a story book.

What’s important to remember is that reviewing information about a difficult situation helps the student understand, remember and increase his or her ability to process the situation. Visual strategies help those with autism understand unusual situations like a death in the family.

How have you handled difficult situations like death in the family?  Please post below. . . .



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  1. I tackled this subject from a different angle with a child who loved the night sky and as a small child loved the nursery rhyme “ Twinkle twinkle little star”. We had already used this story when his cat had died and he was familiar with the concept that stars were the “sparkly” bits of people and animals that remained in heaven ( which he interpreted as the sky) after they died. When his granny was poorly and the prognosis wasn’t good we reintroduced the book preparing him for granny’s demise. When she passed he was almost excited that she would become a new star and couldn’t wait for it to be dark and go and look for her. He found her ( of course he did!) “That star definitely wasn’t there last night!” Amusingly he had worked out that during the day when gran couldn’t see him he could still take sweets out of the cupboard without asking but he wouldn’t be able to when it was dark!
    This must have been 25 plus years ago. Perhaps I should resurrect and update it!

    1. Thank you for sharing. Helping a child make a connection between something unknown and something he already knows (a in a positive way) is a great way to manage a difficult situation.

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