As we read in the previous blog, children with autism spectrum disorder do not always respond to life-changing events in ways that we would expect. For example, it can be difficult for a child with ASD to understand the implications and expected emotional responses associated with large life events (such as chronic illness, divorce, new baby, death, loss of job, moves).
While it may be tempting to categorize these difficult topics as “adult only,” children are inevitably impacted by these events, and discussing them (at a level that is developmentally appropriate) is not only recommended, but crucial to the child’s ability to manage the stress they are feeling. Without ample opportunity for processing these events with the people they trust most, children will draw conclusions and make assumptions (e.g., “My parents’ divorce is all my fault.”) that may not only be erroneous, but can have emotional consequences.
So how much information is too much? When taking care to give “the right amount” of information, it can be helpful to think about the goal of the conversation. Specifically, the goal of talking with your child is to provide a concrete and unbiased explanation of the event, open the door for present and future communication, foster a sense of openness and transparency in your family, and offer opportunities for question-asking and for challenging erroneous child assumptions.
Given our goal, we can now formulate the “how to.” First, as mentioned above, give a brief, concrete, unbiased account of the event. Next, remind your child that this event does not change how much your child is loved or how big a priority their safety and care are. You may need to explain your emotional response to your child and reassure them that tears are a normal part of grieving and adjusting to life events. Next, ask your child what questions they have about the event. Let them know that when they come up with further questions that they can always come to you (even if it is the middle of the night). Finally, let your child know that you will keep bringing up this topic over time; it will be important to do so, even after life begins to settle.
Remember, you may not always get the response you are expecting (especially as it relates to emotional underpinnings or social rules related to the event). It may be necessary to adjust your expectation; one way of doing so may be to remind yourself that just because a big life event has occurred, does not change how your child’s brain is programmed. As mentioned in the previous blog, Adam Braverman needs more help now that Christina has cancer, but Max is still operating under his concrete, “pre-cancer” guidelines (i.e., “Why take the dog out now…he already peed!”); Max cannot necessarily be expected to grasp the idea that now that mom has cancer, children in the family need to “step up” and help more.
In sum, the description of the event should be brief and non-biased, and time for questions and assumption-challenging should be offered. The most important thing that should result from these discussions is that children feel safe, secure, validated, and loved unconditionally and know that they can come to their parent with further questions and concerns.