Talking with autistic children & adults about the attacks in Israel and Gaza
Posted on 10/19/23 in News by Ilana Hoffer Skoff and Bradley Wyner
On October 7, Hamas perpetrated a horrific massacre of 1,400 Israeli men, women and children as well as kidnapped hundreds. The ensuing war and impact on innocent civilians in Israel and Gaza is tragically unfolding, with images continuing to be shared on television and social media. Many of us are struggling to process what has transpired and are feeling a variety of emotions – sadness, pain, anger, trauma, powerlessness, hopelessness. So how do we begin to responsibly discuss such horror with our autistic children and loved ones?
Milestones Director of Education, Bradley Wyner, NADD-DDS, shares some tips on how to prepare and handle this important conversation with an emphasis on trauma informed care.
A message for parents, teachers and caregivers:
Even though social communication can be challenging for autistic people, that doesn't mean that our autistic friends and family aren't tuned into the feelings of the people around them. Many autistic people are extremely sensitive to the emotional states of the people around them, even if they don't comment on it directly. Regardless of whether or not you think someone understands what is happening in the news, it's important that we are aware that the emotional environment can still affect them.
Autistic people tend to be concrete thinkers. School-aged children often process scary stories by trying to understand if the scary thing might happen to them, too. So when we are talking with autistic kids about the war, it's important that we are concrete about what is happening, how far away (or how close) it is, and what is different (or the same) in the young person's reality.
When really bad stuff happens, there isn't an answer or a solution. Some things are so horrible that they can't be fixed. When we are taking care of kids in those situations, they look to adults to show if things are okay. And when horrible things happen, globally, spiritually, things are not okay. But we are safe. Here in our bodies, in our school, in our homes, we are safe. And we are together. We are here together, and we can be scared together. And some people won't want to talk about it. And some will need to. And some will cry. And some will think of sad or scary things that happened to them in the past. And all of that is okay.
The gift we give kids in these situations is for them to see us experience big feelings and live and carry ourselves through it. Being brave isn't about not being scared: Being brave is about having those feelings and finding a way through it. For a kid to see an adult be brave in that way is a profound gift, and builds their resilience for this, and for all of the scary things they will face in life.
Here are some concrete tips to manage the potential increased stress we are experiencing:
- Monitor input and access: It is tempting to be glued to our computers, phones and television screens when major incidents like this happen. But it’s important to remember when a caregiver is getting news, their loved one with ASD is also absorbing it even if it might appear they are not. One must set boundaries on how much news, particularly scary or anxiety-inducing news, they are taking in at a single time or day. Set limits for yourself and your teen/young adult if necessary, how much time you or they will spend watching/reading about this event.
- Maintain a calm environment: Keep conversations private - This can be triggering. You deserve your feelings, but your autistic children and young people don’t need to hear or be a part of graphic or anger-fueled conversations. Make an effort to refrain from having those conversations with other adults until your autistic loved one is out of the room or try writing or texting them instead.
- Keep mindfulness practice a regular part of your day – Daily quiet time for reflection, stretching and emotional regulation is important throughout the year, but even more critical when there are stressful stories in the news.
- Take sensory breaks as needed– Sensory breaks allow some autistic individuals to regulate when they are feeling overstimulated. Get absorbed in the feeling of heavy blankets with your autistic loved one and schedule sensory breaks like listening to music in your favorite rocking chair.
- Seek out professional services to build up your team – If you’ve always made time to take your child to therapies, make sure you are taking good care of yourself too. Talking with a counselor can help caregivers manage their own stress instead of it causing conflict in their home. If your autistic child or young adult isn’t seeing a therapist, inquire with them or other caregivers to see if it might be beneficial to add another professional to the team supporting your child. Milestones is always here to help you find the right therapist for yourself or a loved one.
- Make concrete time to talk: Some kids may ask questions all day about current events. Setting time in the day to discuss important things could help alleviate the need for children to consistently talk about them and give them a concrete time to express their feelings.
- Give space for them to ask questions. Ask, “What have you heard,” “What would you like to know.” It's important to take the time to listen and only answer what is being asked, especially with younger children.
As this tragedy unfolds, people all around the world are scared, outraged and often confused about what is happening. Certainly, this includes those in Israel and in Gaza, but also people in our community here in Cleveland. The following resources may be helpful as you navigate conversations with your autistic loved ones.
General resources on talking to kids about war in a trauma-responsive way:
Social story about the war:
Tips on talking with autistic kids about tragedy: