Expressive Healing: Art Therapy for Autistic Children Trying to Understand Grief

Mec Rawlings

By Leigh Marcos

Loss and grief are a normal part of life. Explaining the concept of death and the grieving process to children can be difficult, and even more so when the child is on the autism spectrum. The idea of not being able to see or talk to the person who has died again can be very confusing and scary. All bereavements are individual, and there are many different methods that people find to help cope: likewise, children with ASD will need a range of ways to help them cope. One excellent method is art therapy.

What is art therapy?

Art therapy is used to help people process emotions, as sensory stimulation, and for healthy self-expression, and can be a useful coping mechanism for grieving people. The art can be a kind of language which helps to communicate concepts or themes with imagery, color, and patterns. Creating a concrete, visual representation of their feelings and emotions can be very helpful to children on the autism spectrum. For those who are grieving, it can be a useful outlet for overwhelming and strange emotions which they do not understand, and feel unable to communicate adequately through speech or writing. Art therapy helps to affirm these feelings and to promote an understanding that death is a natural part of life, and that the grieving process is normal and natural too.

Thinking in pictures

Difficulty with communication is one of the central characteristics of those on the autism spectrum, particularly with verbal self-expression. Art therapy helps to provide a communication method and outlet for emotions which does not require the spoken or written word. Some people on the autism spectrum (such as Temple Grandin) report “thinking in pictures”, so using methods which encourage this form of expression is important to make the grieving process more natural and accessible for them.

Accessing art therapy

Finding an art therapist who can help your child is something to be done sooner rather than later. Children with ASD thrive on routine, and having plenty of time to understand and process changes in their lives. The death of a loved one will undoubtedly be a shock, so introducing the concepts of death and grieving, and relevant coping mechanisms, sooner rather than later is a good idea.

Understanding death and coming to terms with the loss of a relative or friend will always be difficult for anyone; but being prepared with appropriate strategies to cope and outlets for emotions will help your ASD child to go through the process in a way which is more natural and understandable for them.


Header Photo by Mec Rawlings on Unsplash

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