Grief and Autism: Support Around Bereavements
Jul 13, 2023, 6 min read
Loss — in the form of death or someone leaving — is an inevitable part of life that we all must face at some point or another, but for autistic people, it can be much more difficult to process these events.
Here, we are looking at why bereavement is so tough for autistic people, typical reactions to loss, the challenges of expressing feelings as an autistic person, how to process grief, what support is available, and the best coping strategies for autistic adults.
At Augmentive, we aim to provide holistic, tailored mental health support to everyone so they can live their life to the fullest, so if you have questions about autism and how to handle specific emotional challenges, we’re here to help.
What is autism?
Autism is a neurodevelopmental condition affecting how people interact with others, the world around them, and how they understand and respond to information. With these communication, language and social challenges, processing bereavement and loss can be very difficult for autistic people.
You can read more here in our blog about what autism is.
Why is bereavement difficult for autistic people?
Bereavement and the grieving process is undoubtedly hard for anyone who has suffered a loss, but the social and communication challenges faced by autistic people can make it much harder to understand, process, and settle back into an everyday routine without the person who has passed.
One aspect of the Triad of Impairments — primarily a lack of social imagination — tends to influence any process of change for autistic people. Inflexibility of thought can mean an autistic person may struggle to imagine a life outside of their fixed and static view of the world as it currently is. The grieving process requires a reevaluation of expectations, and so death and loss is likely to be traumatising. Similarly, if the attachment to the person who has died is centred around feelings of security, this can also be traumatic for an autistic person.
Keep in mind that, though it is a different experience, pet bereavement can also be difficult for autistic people as it is for neurotypical people. You can read more about the importance of addressing this in our review; Yes, Pet Bereavement Counselling Is Real: Here's Why
What are the typical reactions to grief from autistic people?
Autistic people can find it difficult to understand the loss that has happened, to express how they feel about it or to know how they are “supposed” to feel about it.
As each autistic person will have their own traits and things they find difficult, there is no one singular reaction to grief and often it cannot be predicted. However, reactions tend to be similar to that of neurotypical people, only more intense. According to the National Autistic Society, a bereavement can affect an autistic person in some of the following ways. Autistic people may:
- Display anger or aggressive behaviour
- Become more restless than usual
- Experience an altered sleeping pattern
- Experience an altered eating pattern
- Become increasingly dependent on others
- Lose skills and confidence they previously had
- Experience delayed grief or none at all
- Display what seems like excitement
Often when an autistic person experiences a bereavement, their typical traits and coping mechanisms may be exacerbated. In some accounts of autistic people experiencing loss, sometimes they might find it difficult to connect to their own emotions or to cry, or the opposite might be true, and they experience uncontrollable emotion as an outburst.
One account in Psychology Today details the delayed grief experience of a 38-year-old autistic woman while dealing with the death of her mother: “Instead [of crying], I focused on action: getting us packed for the 17-hour journey from our home in Tulsa to Tucson, speaking and texting with my mom’s friends and family members, letting them know when she passed… after being up for over 36 hours straight, I finally broke down. I was lying in my bedroom here in Tulsa when the sadness of losing my mom came over me.”
It is also important to remember that anticipatory grief can be difficult for autistic people. Anticipatory grief is the time period between diagnosis of a life-ending disease and the death of the loved one. This can cause feelings of uncertainty, grief, anxiety, fear and more, and these can be extremely difficult for an autistic person to process.
How to understand and process your feelings
The grieving process is so personal depending on your bond with the person who has passed, your prior experience of loss, and your personal mental health — this is true for everyone, not just autistic people.
For neurotypical people, depending on the circumstances surrounding the death of a loved one, the stages of bereavement or grief are likely to include some form of shock, disbelief, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, awareness, and finally, acceptance.
Often autistic people may struggle to articulate or connect to these feelings of loss immediately after an event. If this is true for your loved one, it can be important to acknowledge the loss in the way that best fits their communication style, and seek support to help them start to understand their feelings and process them in a healthy way.
Coping strategies for autistic people dealing with grief
Advice and support for autistic people works best when it is bespoke and individualised, because symptoms vary so much from person to person and what works for one person may not work for another.
However, if you are looking for coping strategies to help an autistic loved one deal with a recent loss, you may find it helpful to discuss the loss with a wider network of friends and family, and involve the autistic person in the discussion. By processing your feelings together, this can help them see how others are feeling and handling the situation, and allow them to express similar emotions.
Also, organising or attending a funeral can be extremely difficult for an autistic person due to a possible lack of understanding of what to do in social situations. If you are planning a funeral or service of some sort for a loved one who has passed, they might find it useful to visit the place where the funeral will happen in advance, or look at pictures of the place.
This can help the autistic person to know what to expect, which can make the situation feel more manageable to them. You may also want to involve them in the planning process if you feel they can handle this, and walk them through exactly what will happen so there are no surprises for them on the day.
Support for autistic people going through bereavement
Experiences of autistic people going through a loss tend to follow a similar pattern to the experiences of neurotypical people, such as shock, anger, depression and acceptance, however they can be felt more intensely, yet displayed in a more subtle, nuanced way — ultimately each experience of grief is entirely different.
If your loved one is autistic and you believe they may be struggling to cope with a loss or anticipated grief, seeking support from a medical professional or specialist can be extremely helpful, as handling the situation in the wrong way can cause more trauma for them.
There are several types of therapy (such as cognitive behavioural therapy) that can effectively help autistic people start to understand and process the loss of a loved one. By engaging in talking therapies, progress can be made in reaching a place of acceptance.
You may find it helpful to speak to a therapist with experience of helping autistic people who are going through intense emotional situations such as bereavement. Our free 15 minute consultation can point you in the right direction and pair you with a therapist who can offer support throughout the grieving process.
Whether you’re feeling off-kilter or want to shake up your routine, our the state-of-the-art mental wellbeing platform gives you quick and seamless access to world-class support on your terms, from private autism assessments and reviews to broader mental health care: join us today.