Terrorism, school shootings, disastrous weather — these are just a few sobering reminders of the sometimes unpredictable world we live in. In times of distress, children with autism especially need our help to navigate such confusing and scary moments. If warranted, assistance from a qualified professional such as a psychologist, social worker, or counselor should be sought to help your child and/or yourself cope with trauma.
At home, you as the parent can provide comfort and reassurance for your child while growing closer. Here are some examples of communication I have had with my clients through the years to deal with traumatic events:
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- Pinpoint What Your Child Wants to Know: Because we might not have an accurate understanding of what children with autism are thinking, sometimes we may presume that they’re asking something deeper or more complex than what is truly on their minds. One way to identify exactly what your child wants to know is to ask her to give more information or to clarify the question.For example, a client of mine recently asked me, “Why are the kids in my school making French flags for their classrooms?” Withholding details of the recent terroristic attacks, I asked her, “What do you mean?” She said while chuckling, “This is the United States, not France. We have to have the USA flag in the classroom.” I responded factually, “People in the United States and all over the world are thinking about France right now by making French flags.”I allowed her to continue the conversation: “Yes, I think about France right now, too, because I learn how to talk French in French class in my class in the United States.” Obviously, this child was not asking about terrorism.
- Use Other Forms of Communication like Drawing, Role play, Writing, etc.: Out of the blue, one of my clients asked me, “Why don’t the firemen use ladders?” He was unable to use different words or manipulate language to explain, and I had no idea as to what he was referring. I gave him paper to draw what he meant. Though this was a few years after the September 11th terroristic attacks on the World Trade Center, my student drew the ladders from the fire trucks reaching the 100th floor of the twin towers.It became apparent that he misunderstood the length limitations of a fire truck’s ladder. I had him tape several papers together to illustrate the grand height of the twin towers. Then, we used only two sheets of paper taped together to compare the ladder’s insufficient length. His response was that buildings should only be built as high as the fire trucks’ ladders can reach. I agreed.
- Compare Frequent vs. Rare Events: Many children with autism depend on the stability of predictability. Any traumatic event is a disruption, so we need to help them understand probability to develop a sense of proportion.After the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, my client, shuttering in fear, refused to take a family reunion trip to the seashore. His parents and I helped him think about the nature of risk: That while storms are fairly frequent and common everywhere, most storms are not tornados or hurricanes. And earthquakes, which are usually the cause of tsunamis, are even rarer.If needed for further reassurance, together look up probability statistics of disastrous weather and seismic activity online. Assure your child that just like the TV weatherperson predicts the weather daily to let us know if we should take our umbrellas, agencies like the National Weather Service and the National Earthquake Information Center are always monitoring to keep us safe.
- Explain Complex Concepts in Basic Ways: Understanding people’s motives to commit despicable, purposeful acts such as terrorism is incredibly difficult for most of us. Children with autism who tend to think concretely usually have an even harder time processing this complex information. If they ask about such topics, it helps to be very specific yet basic to explain, channel, and guide their understanding.Recently, my client asked me, “Why did people kill other people in Paris?” When I asked her what her thoughts were, she truly had no idea. To respond as a matter-of-fact, I said, “Some people don’t want to do good things, but that is not right.” Again, she asked why people don’t want to do good things and instead do ‘unright’ things. Like before, this time using different words, my response included basic facts to express the same concept. I said, “Some people feel that it’s OK to hurt other people, but it’s never OK to hurt anyone.”She continued to ask questions out of confusion. Recognizing that this child really wanted a deeper discussion, we continued. I knew I had to give her a way to analyze inhumane acts to understand that not everyone has the best intentions. I explained, “Most people want to do good things, but a few people do not. Like the people who stole things from your house a little while ago, some people do not follow the rules. Just like the police kept you safe from the people who robbed your house and put them in jail, people in government and everyday heroes around the world are keeping us safe too.”
- Help Your Child to Observe Objectively: In the months that followed the horrific events of September 11th, planes flying overhead might have evoked fear within some people. For others who saw the events unfold or replayed on TV over the years, the sights and sounds of emergency vehicles may cause similar stress during routine emergencies. Such was the case for a client of mine one day on the playground when fire trucks passed with sirens blaring. She blurted out to the kids, “It’s happening again! It’s September 11th all over again! Run away! Run away!”Knowing that I needed to help her observe objectively, I said, “Look around. It’s not September 11th. It is (whatever the current date was). It’s a house fire, and look—the firefighters and police got all the people who live in the house out safely.”
- Provide Reassurance: Frozen in fear, my client with autism refused to attend school after overhearing his older teen-aged sister discuss some recent school shootings in the news. To provide a comprehensive feeling of comfort and safety, his parents and I reassured him that their home and his school are safe. We listed as many security measures as possible, such as how Mom and Dad set the house alarm at night, pointed out the numerous smoke detectors, and mapped their fire escape plan. Likewise, at school, we reminded him that all school visitors have to sign in and wear name-tags, plus regularly-practiced fire/evacuation drills keep everyone safe.
- Be Honest: We don’t have all answers, and it’s ok to tell your child when you are not sure either. You can explain to your child that you are learning along with him or her, and as a team, you’ll both figure out what’s best.
- The 3 E’s: EMPATHIZE with your child that it is natural and OK to be scared, and give him EMPOWERMENT to approach you and other adults for reassurance and comfort. And, of course, ENCOURAGE him to continue to be kind to others.
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Using these communication strategies between you and your child will help develop a stronger relationship, and, in turn, your child will feel comfortable and safe in this ever-changing world.
This article was featured in Issue 44 – Strategies for Daily Life with Autism