With the news from Paris on every channel and reports of horrible acts of terrorism splashed across every headline, the anxiety can weigh especially heavy on parents with small children at home. For parents of children on the autism spectrum attacks like these bring a whole wealth of additional challenges and considerations. My son Aidan, for example, has been able to read any newspaper headline with ease from about the age of 3, so shielding him from events of terror has been nearly an impossible feat. And since he is already prone to severe anxiety and oversized emotions, and both his age and his diagnosis cause him to struggle to understand complex social constructs like religious extremism or even politics in general? Events like these have the potential to rob him of much needed structure and security and plunge him into total chaos. Here are some valuable tips for helping these special kids cope with such difficult issues.
Resist the temptation to be anything less than honest.
It can be easy to fall into the trap of fudging the truth to keep our kids from their fears. Why not simply answer questions about unimaginable evil by somehow explaining it away all together? Although this tactic can buy some quick relief in the short term, it creates much bigger problems in the long run – especially with these children who often have extraordinarily gifted memories. Set a history now of being an honest communicator with your child when they have questions or concerns, rather than risk being permanently characterized as likely to offer less than truthful information.
Avoid offering extraneous details – stick to the facts.
Sure, we might see the clear connections between terrorism and religious extremism, or see how the history of US politics in the Middle East may contribute to modern day extremism, but is this all necessary information for a child who’s seeking to get their mind around some already complex ideas? When your child is presented with details of an attack or asks a question about something they have read or heard, its important to address only their specific area of inquiry and not offer any new information into the equation. Keep it simple, with age appropriateness in mind, and wait to see what their next questions may be before offering up new info unprompted. Your child may be satisfied with far less information than you think.
Provide safety in routine.
It can be tempting to try to appease difficult emotions with treats, privileges, or even easing off on normal requirements and expectations, but for the autistic child this can actually make the situation much worse. Provide comfort by sticking to familiar routines and predictable boundaries. When your child see’s that everything is still normal on the home front, it helps reinforce the idea that their world is still the same as before these terrible events, and that they don’t have to worry about total upheaval. Life will go on, and a strong routine is the best way to communicate this right now.
Be vigilant about media exposure, but give yourself a huge measure of grace.
Children on the spectrum have a wide range of skills and areas of struggle, but many of these kids have hyperlexia, which is marked by not only unusually advanced reading abilities but a often a compulsion to read any and all written materials around them. It can be next to impossible to shield these kids entirely from events that are dominating the current news cycle. Give yourself grace and be prepared to answer any questions if and when they may arise. However, be aware of the media sources your child may come in contact with and take steps to filter them to the best of your ability. Avoid watching the news while your children are still awake, even if you think they aren’t paying attention. Don’t leave newspapers out or laptops open to newspaper websites. Ensure parental controls on computers, tablets, and/or smartphones your child may use keep news outlets from their access. I’ve even been known to flip over a copy of Newsweek or two when standing in the checkout lane, or hide them behind the Martha Stewart Living. You may not be able to shield them from the event entirely, but you can take steps to keep the coverage from being overly prevalent in their view.
Watch for nonverbal signs of anxiety
Even if your child has questions or concerns about events on the news, its not a given that they will verbalize them. Stay educated about various nonverbal signs of anxiety and keep an eye out for any new behaviors or changes to your child’s overall emotional state – even if you think your kids are still totally unaware. It’s impossible to know for sure what they may have overheard, seen in passing, or even been told by others, so never assume that the news isn’t playing a role in any behavior changes you might see.
Reach out to your resources and get support
Get in touch with your child’s teacher. Reach out to your ABA. Talk to your child’s counselor or psychologist – or consider contacting one if you don’t already see someone regularly. These issues can be extremely difficult to navigate, and it’s essential to have as many resources and tools on your side as possible. Build a support team around yourself and your child, and never hesitate to admit if you’re feeling out of your depth. It’s always ok to ask for help.