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Sadness beyond words: Understanding grief in the autistic mind


Grief is a universal human experience involving a range of emotions and reactions in response to loss. However, for autistic children, navigating the grieving process can be uniquely difficult. In this article, we will delve into the complexities of grief in the autistic mind, shedding light on their experiences and exploring strategies for supporting them.

Understanding grief in the autistic mind  I. The autistic mind:

Autism often affects emotional processing and expression, making it difficult for autistic children to express their feelings. Individuals who are grieving may have difficulty recognizing and communicating their grief, leading to further distress. Understanding these challenges is vital to providing effective support.

II. Uncovering the grieving process in autistic children 

grief and autism  grief
Grief in autistic children may manifest differently compared to their neurotypical peers. Grieving individuals may exhibit repetitive behaviours, sensory sensitivities or withdrawal, while others may struggle with change or have difficulty adjusting to new routines. Exploring different experiences and narratives helps us to understand the different ways in which grief manifests in autistic children.

The stages of mourning

The stages of bereavement, as described by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, provide a framework for understanding the emotional journey that people typically go through after a significant loss. These stages are not necessarily linear or fixed and each person may experience them in their own unique way. The five widely recognised stages include:
  • Denial: Initially, grieving individuals may find it difficult to accept the reality of losing a loved one, leading to a sense of disbelief or shock. Denial serves as a defense mechanism, providing time to gradually absorb the weight of the situation.
  • Anger: As the reality settles in, feelings of anger and frustration may arise. The individual may direct this anger toward themselves, others involved, or even toward the circumstances surrounding the loss. It is important to acknowledge and express anger in healthy ways to facilitate healing.
  • Negotiation: in an attempt to regain control or seek an alternative outcome, individuals may engage in bargaining. This stage involves making promises, seeking compromises, or attempting to negotiate with a higher power or the universe. It is a way of coping with feelings of powerlessness and vulnerability.
  • Depression: A deep sense of sadness, emptiness and hopelessness may occur during this stage. The person experiences the full weight of the loss and laments the impact it has had on their life. It is vital to recognise that bereavement depression is a normal reaction and seeking support is essential.
  • Acceptance: as the person gradually adjusts to the reality of the loss, acceptance begins to take shape. It does not involve complete resolution or forgetting, but rather the recognition that the loss is part of their life narrative. Acceptance allows individuals to integrate the loss into their identity and move forward in healing and growth.
It is important to note that bereavement is a deeply personal and subjective experience and not everyone can go through all the stages or experience them in the same order, especially if it is the loss of a loved one. The stages of grief provide a framework for understanding the emotional process and can help individuals navigate their journey to healing and resilience.

II. Cultivating the emotional well-being of autistic children in bereavement

Supporting autistic children during the grieving process requires creating a safe and structured environment. Visual aids, such as visual timelines or emotion charts, can help them understand and express their feelings. Social stories tailored to grief and loss provide a framework for understanding and coping. Sensory regulation techniques, such as deep pressure or calming activities, can help with emotional regulation.

Understanding grief in the autistic mind  Sensory tuning techniques and how to use them in grief

Sensory regulation techniques can be valuable tools for supporting individuals, including autistic children, through the grieving process. Bereavement can trigger heightened sensory sensitivities or emotional dysfunction, making it important to create a calming and soothing environment.

Sensory regulation techniques involve engaging the senses in ways that promote relaxation and emotional well-being.

For example, deep pressure activities such as using weighted blankets, gentle massage or cuddling can provide a sense of grounding and comfort. Providing sensory tools, such as fidget toys or stress balls, can provide tactile stimulation as a means of self-understanding.

In addition, incorporating calming sensory experiences, such as soothing music, nature sounds or aromatherapy, can help create a peaceful atmosphere. These techniques can be used along with other coping strategies to help individuals find a sense of calm and stability during their grieving process.

It is important to observe and respect each person's sensory preferences and provide options that meet their specific needs and comfort levels.

Educating autistic children about social situations can greatly assist them in understanding and coping with the complex concept of grief.

Social education provides them with valuable tools and skills to understand the emotional experiences of others, including grief. By learning about emotions, social cues, and appropriate responses, autistic children can develop a broader understanding of the range of emotions people experience in times of loss. Understanding the social expectations and norms around bereavement helps them to interpret the behaviours and expressions of others, enhancing empathy and compassion.

In addition, social education equips autistic children with effective communication strategies, allowing them to express their own feelings and seek support when experiencing grief. By empowering them with social knowledge and skills, we enable autistic children to engage in meaningful and supportive interactions, enhancing their ability to understand and navigate the complexities of grief.

Empathy and communication:

Building empathy in neurotypical individuals is essential for supporting autistic children in grief. Educating others about autism, its impact on emotional expression, and the unique challenges they face in grief promotes understanding and compassion. Encouraging open and patient communication allows autistic children to express their feelings in a safe and accepting environment.

What is the parental role in supporting children during the grieving process?

Parents play a key role in supporting their children through the grieving process. Here are some actions parents can take to help their children:

  • Create a safe and open environment: create a safe and supportive environment where children feel comfortable expressing their feelings. Encourage open communication, active listening and reassurance that their feelings are valid and acceptable.
  • Validate and normalize feelings: Acknowledge and validate your child's feelings without judgment. Let them know that it is normal to feel a wide range of emotions during grief and reassure them that their feelings are valid.
  • Provide age-appropriate information : Explain the concept of loss and grief in a way that is appropriate for your child's developmental level. Use simple and specific language, visual aids or social stories to help them understand what has happened and the feelings associated with it.
  • Maintain routines and stability: Grief can disrupt a child's sense of security and stability. Maintain regular routines and provide a structured environment to help them feel safe and secure during this difficult time.
  • Offer coping strategies: teach your child healthy coping strategies, such as deep breathing exercises, journaling, drawing or participating in physical activities. Encourage them to express their feelings in ways they feel comfortable with.
  • Seek professional support: Consider involving professionals, such as therapists, counsellors or support groups who specialise in bereavement and work with children. These specialists can provide guidance, strategies and a safe space for your child to process their grief.
  • Encourage peer support: Facilitate opportunities for your child to connect with peers who have experienced similar losses or who can offer empathy and support. This may include play dates, support groups, or online communities specifically designed for children coping with grief and the loss of loved ones.
  • Practice self-care: As a parent, it is important to prioritize your own self-care and emotional well-being. By taking care of yourself, you can better support your child during the grieving process.

Remember, every child is unique and there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Tailor your support strategies based on your child's individual needs and always be patient, loving and understanding as your child goes through their grief journey.

V. Seeking professional support

Professional support plays a vital role in supporting autistic children during the grieving process. Working with therapists, educators and support networks ensures a holistic approach. These professionals can provide specialist interventions, therapies and resources tailored to the specific needs of autistic children. 

grief and autism


Understanding grief in the autistic mind requires us to recognize the unique challenges they face and tailor our support accordingly. By cultivating emotional well-being, promoting empathy, and seeking professional guidance, we can help autistic children navigate the grieving process with greater resilience and understanding. Let's continue to support research, awareness and advocacy that recognizes the multifaceted nature of grief in the autistic community.


Williams, D. (2017). Autism and emotional understanding. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 47(6), 1476-1479.
National Autistic Society. (n.d.). Grief and autism. Retrieved from [link].
Attwood, T. (2007). The complete guide to Asperger's syndrome. jessica kingsley Publishers.
Autism Speaks. (n.d.). Supporting people with autism in uncertain times. Retrieved from [link].
MacLeod, A., & Lewis, A. (2018). supporting grieving children and young people with autism spectrum disorders: a literature review. bereavement care, 37(3), 89-95.

Original content from the Upbility writing team. Reproduction of this article, in whole or in part, without attribution to the publisher is prohibited.

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