Sunday, November 12, 2017

Death in the Family: Autism and Emotion

Beautiful afternoon at Leavenworth National Cemetery
Early on Halloween morning, 2017, Pop's little brother, Uncle-D, died. He was just 50 years old.
 
Uncle-D's death was sudden, unexpected and, for those who loved him, wrapped in emotion.
 
Individuals with autism typically crave structure and routine. Situations involving sudden change, quick transition and unknown faces are undesirable and incite negative response. For best results, introduction to new people, places and events require attention to the Three P's: patience, planning and preparation.
 
Preparing children with autism for unanticipated emotion belonging to other people? More complex.
 
A decision was made to protect Wonder Boy and Amaze Girl's routine from the turmoil surrounding the loss of Uncle-D. They would go to school. There would be piano practice, homework and therapy as usual. They would have dinner, bath and go to bed at expected times.
 
They would attend a weekend family gathering, but they would not attend Uncle-D's wake, services or burial.
 
Super Daddy missed nearly two days of work to be home with his children. Their favored, familiar aunt GAK met buses on funeral day. The children's favorite foods were prepared in advance.
 
The t's were crossed. The i's were dotted. Amaze Girl did fine. And yet.
 
All that week, Wonder Boy whined. He hit himself. He cried. He stopped requesting the bathroom. He had difficulty focusing on school or therapy. Although he ate and slept well, he appeared exhausted and out of sorts.
 
Were his troubles related to the transition between his two homes for Halloween? Did the chilly day zoo field trip wear him out? Was he distressed about an event at school or his other home that he couldn't express? Was he missing the routine provided by his usual caregiver? Was he sick?
 
Did he absorb the emotion of Uncle-D's passing in spite of efforts to protect the construction of his life?
 
Playing With Friends is Fun
Before a child with autism can conceptualize emotion in another person, he needs to understand it in himself. "Social stories" - a kind of rebus for life's events – and picture books are some of the tools used to teach children with special needs about holidays, field trips, changes to family structure, alterations to the expected routine – and emotion.
 
Here are some other ways Wonder Boy is learning to understand feelings:
 
In sweet moments together, while snuggling or hugging we say, "I love you." As he displays the emotion, Wonder Boy is encouraged to respond, "I love you too."
 
When he appears happy, frustrated, angry or sad he is prompted to identify his feelings using words or manipulatives. "I'm (happy/frustrated/angry/sad)."
 
When he needs his daddy or another loved one, we encourage him to express his desire out loud, "I want my daddy."
 
When he returns after being away, we say, "I missed you."
 
But the emotion surrounding a loved one's unexpected death? How do you help a child who's still learning to express the desire for a hug to comprehend that?
 
With luck, good health and a benevolent universe the answer won't be needed again anytime soon.
RIP Uncle-D
we love you

2 comments:

Charles Hedrick said...

Difficult situation. Death of a loved one is hard enough for those who have learned to cope with change, but how does it impact the young? It is partially a learning experience for them, but for children having trouble communicating, it must approximate a nightmare.
Charles W. Hedrick

Kay said...

😦