Traumatic events and children
A traumatic event is a sudden, unexpected and shocking event that makes children feel scared, distressed or overwhelmed. Traumatic events include car crashes, natural disasters, unexpected deaths or diagnoses, and so on.
Some events cause some children trauma, but not other children. Children’s reactions to potentially traumatic events depend on a few things – how old they are, whether they’ve been through a traumatic event before, and what kind of support they get from family, friends and school. Personality and temperament play a role too.
How children experience an event also affects how much distress they feel. For example, a car accident will feel more traumatic if a child thought they were going to die.
How traumatic events affect autistic children
Autistic children experience the world differently from typically developing children. For example, they might be less aware of other people’s social and emotional cues. The way they express and manage their own emotions might be different too.
These differences can affect how autistic children experience traumatic events. Events that feel minor to many children might feel traumatic to autistic children. But events that many children find traumatic might not feel the same way to autistic children.
Sometimes autistic children find some things about traumatic events more stressful than other things. For example, an autistic child might find the change in routine caused by a family illness more stressful than the illness itself. Or they might find it harder to cope with subtle changes in other people’s emotions.
Also, autistic children might not react to traumatic events straight away. Their reactions might come weeks or months later, when they’ve processed what happened, how they’re feeling and how it has changed things around them.
If your autistic child experiences a traumatic event, you can use many of the first responses that help all children after traumatic events. These include checking your child’s physical wellbeing and ensuring that they feel safe. Autistic children might need extra support to feel safe, calm and grounded and to understand what’s going on.
First response to traumatic events: helping autistic children feel safe and calm
Helping autistic children feel safe and calm is the most important aspect of a first response to traumatic events. Here are some ideas:
- Spend time with your child. Reassure them that you and other people are there to look after them.
- If you can, let your child use the safe space or routine that usually helps them when they’re feeling distressed. It might be a quiet corner, under a table with a cushion, or a locker room at school. Or they might have a special song, count cars or recite a favourite script.
- If the environment around your child is distressing, think about what you can do to change it. For example, if your child is sensitive to sounds or bright lights but there are a lot of emergency vehicles and sirens outside, noise cancelling headphones might help.
- Encourage your child to focus on the things around them, rather than on the thoughts and feelings that are distressing them. Mindfulness or a grounding exercise can help.
After a traumatic event, your autistic child might be very upset, anxious, withdrawn or disoriented. If your child can’t use their usual calming techniques, you could try other options like helping your child to do a slow breathing exercise.
Handling changes to autistic children’s routines after traumatic events
Autistic children can find changes in their routine and surroundings difficult. Here are some ways you can help your child manage these changes and feel more in control:
- Tell your child about changes before they happen, if you can. You could use a social story, comic strip conversation or visual support to explain the changes – for example, that you need to stay with friends.
- Try to get some structure and routine into your child’s day as soon as you can. For example, have meals at the usual time, or go to the park in the afternoons as you usually do.
- Include some calming activities during the day to help your child manage their emotions. This could be time to count cars, line up trains or whatever your child’s preferred activity is.
Explaining traumatic events to autistic children
It’s important for your child to have information about the traumatic event that they can understand but that doesn’t scare them. Here are some ideas for explaining traumatic events to autistic children:
- Use a calm, reassuring tone of voice.
- Think about what your child needs to know. Use concrete descriptions and language that your child will understand. For example, ‘There has been a car crash. Billy is hurt. He has to go to hospital so that doctors can help him to feel better’.
- Ask your child what they’ve heard or read. Correct any misinformation, talk through anything that’s upsetting your child, and answer questions. Your child might find it easier to share their thoughts and experiences using puppets or toys, drawing, or sensory activities like playdough or sand.
- If your autistic child gets focused on one aspect of the event, work on a plan to get the information they need. For example, if your child wants to know where their cat is, plan who to ask or where to look.
- Use a social story or a visual support like a book or a picture to explain what’s happening. This can be especially helpful if the traumatic event goes on for several days, like a bushfire or a flood.
It’s important to monitor how much media coverage of disaster news and distressing news events both you and your child are seeing. It’s not helpful for anyone to watch distressing images over and over again.
Looking after yourself
Looking after yourself, especially your physical and emotional wellbeing, is good for you. It can help you stay calm and consistent when things get tough, which is good for your child too.
If you’re having trouble coping, it’s important to seek help from your GP or a trusted friend. Call Lifeline on 131 114 (24 hours, 7 days) or contact a parenting hotline.