Traumatic events: how autistic children might react
Traumatic events include car crashes, natural disasters, unexpected deaths or diagnoses, and other sudden and shocking events.
Autistic children might react to events like these in many ways. For example, autistic children might:
- have nightmares or flashbacks about the event
- have difficulty sleeping
- seem on edge or be easily startled
- be sad, angry or irritable
- avoid things that remind them of the event
- cling to you or avoid other people
- not show much emotion or seem ‘numb’
- be more forgetful.
You might also notice some changes in autistic children’s behaviour. For example, autistic children might:
- play in a different or unusual way – for example, they might play more aggressively and start using a stick to hit their toys
- seem more agitated, rigid, aggressive or hyperactive and do more repetitive, self-soothing or self-injurious behaviour – for example, they might rock, pick their skin or pull their hair
- not be able to do things they could do before or seem to go backwards in their development – for example, they might stop using the toilet or start using a baby voice
- be more focused on their obsessive interests or activities.
These reactions are common after a traumatic event, but they don’t always happen straight away. Autistic children’s 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.
This means autistic children need your support in the days, weeks and months afterwards. For most children, things will improve in a few months.
You can support your autistic child in many of the same ways you can support all children in the days and weeks after a traumatic event. Autistic children might need extra support to talk through their feelings, handle reminders of the event, handle uncertainty and manage their emotions.
Talking and listening with autistic children after traumatic events
When you talk with your autistic child in the days and weeks after the traumatic event, you can explain what’s happening. For example, ‘The fire burned our house down. While it’s being rebuilt, we’ll live with Aunty Lisa and Uncle Dave. You can still go to school and see your friends’. Social stories or comic strip conversations can help your child understand.
Older autistic children might want to know more about the event. For example, they might be interested in knowing how firefighters fight fires or feel comforted by knowing how emergency service workers are keeping them safe.
Your child will probably have questions too. These questions let you check whether your child understands what’s going on. They also give you clues about how your child is feeling and a chance to reassure your child. For example, ‘Yes, the school is still open. You can go to school and see your friends. All your friends are OK’.
Your child might keep asking about things that worry them. It can help to write down the answers to questions in a notebook or a computer file. Then you can encourage your child to look at the answers when they need to.
Role-playing the solution to a question can help your child understand and remember the information. For example, if your child asks what will happen when they visit Grandma in hospital, you and your child could role-play a hospital visit.
Reminders of traumatic events for autistic children
Your autistic child might be frightened by reminders of the event, like smoke after a bushfire or pictures on TV news.
It’s important to start by explaining that it’s natural to feel afraid or upset, but that the event isn’t happening again. Then you can help your child feel safe:
- Reassure your child. For example, ‘I can see from your face that you’re feeling upset. I wonder if the smell of the smoke has reminded you of the fire. It’s OK to have these big feelings. We’ve been through a lot, but we’re safe now’.
- Use a social story. For example, ‘We’ve been in a car crash. When I see cars go fast on the road, it sometimes reminds me of the crash and I feel scared. We’re safe now. It’s going to be OK’.
- Use visual supports that combine ‘If then’ rules with pictures. For example, you could put a picture of a car with the following rule: ‘If seeing a car makes me feel upset, I take three deep breaths’.
- Do a mindfulness activity or a grounding exercise with your child to help them calm down.
It’s important to monitor how much media coverage of disaster news and distressing events both you and your child are seeing. It’s not helpful for anyone to watch distressing images over and over again.
Uncertainty and autistic children after traumatic events
Life after a traumatic event is often uncertain, but uncertainty and changes in routines can be particularly distressing for autistic children.
Here are some ways you can help:
- Set up routines to suit your new situation. For example, you might need to set new times for meals, or go to a different park in the afternoons. A visual support or social story might help your child understand the new routine.
- Give your child as much time as possible to prepare for changes, especially if there are changes to your living situation. For example, let your child know as soon as you can if you have to live somewhere else for a while because of a bush fire or flood. A social story might help your child cope with the changes.
If your child stims more following a traumatic event, this is OK. Autistic children and teenagers might use stimming to calm themselves down.
Autistic children’s emotions after traumatic events
After a traumatic event, autistic children might need particular help with recognising and expressing their emotions. Some autistic children might express feelings through challenging behaviour, and others might be quiet and withdrawn.
There are many ways you can help your child manage their emotions:
- Help your child name their feelings. For example, ‘It seems like you’re feeling pretty annoyed right now. Is that right?’
- Use role-modelling to help your child learn about naming and responding to emotions. For example, if you knock over a carton of milk you could say, ‘Oh that’s so frustrating! Oh well, I’d better take a deep breath and figure out how to clean it up’.
- If your child is quiet and withdrawn, talk about different emotions to help your child understand how they’re feeling. You could look through magazines and cut out pictures of faces expressing different emotions.
- If your child is behaving in challenging ways, give your child other options for expressing their feelings. For example, ‘When you feel angry, let me know. Hitting is not OK’.
- Think about sensory or calming activities your child could do if they’re feeling anxious. These might include listening to music or playing with playdough.
A ‘glitter jar’ can be a good way to talk about feelings and help autistic children calm down. Just add glitter and water to a small jar with a lid. Say, ‘The glitter is sitting peacefully at the bottom of the jar’. Shake the jar and say, ‘When we feel upset, thoughts and feelings swirl around so we can’t think clearly. But keep watching the glitter – it always settles. As you watch the glitter settle, notice your mind settling too. When the glitter goes back to the bottom of the jar, you’ll feel calmer and be able to think more clearly’.
Getting professional help after traumatic events
Recovering after a traumatic event takes time, and you and your child don’t have to do it alone. There are services that can support you.
If you have any concerns about how your child is coping, talk with your child’s GP or one of the health professionals who works with your child. The GP can refer you to local services and professionals who can help you and your child.
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.