Do Neuroatypical Children Grieve Differently?

by Teresa Currivan, LMFT, Parent Coach

First of all, I believe we all grieve in our own way, at our own time, and on our own terms. 

When we are trying to help a non-neurotypical child, what would be helpful to know can probably help us with a neurotypical child. One of my “Teresaisms” is that non-neurotypical children are more: more sensitive, more intense, more everything. Therefore we can always learn about typical children by understanding the spectrum of non-typical children’s needs. 

Two years ago, when I heard the news of one of my students’* mother’s death, it hit me like a ton of bricks. It was a Friday and I was exhausted. The student, who had rarely missed a day of school, had been absent for a few weeks. I had asked his teacher if she knew what was up, and she had said she would call the student’s parent. So when he walked into my office that next Friday, I was happy to see him. 

Before he could sit down, with his head down, his face hidden by his hoodie in his typical fashion, he said, “My mom died.” 

“It was sudden,” he said as if knowing I was going to ask. Because that’s what adults do. We like facts. It helps ground us in difficult situations. As though information will help. All I could do in the moment was to be aware of my own triggers. I had had an intense day, an intense week, and right before this, an intense meeting with a colleague. I felt a bit “off,” suddenly, as one could expect. But I knew that peppering this student with questions would be more about my own feelings and maybe not his. I didn’t know. 

I found some words of comfort. He then explained to me what happened on his own – through tears and intermittent eye contact he gave me the facts of her death. He then said that he wanted to talk about something else, which we did. I have to say that, besides this brief moment, he presented as his usual self. As if nothing had happened. When I checked in with his teacher and asked if she had known, she said that she did, but wasn’t worried because he seemed fine, and therefore she didn’t tell me. She even seemed a bit perplexed (and maybe even annoyed?) that he didn’t seem sad or to be grieving. This could be why she didn’t tell me when she found out, or maybe she was just busy. 

My experience with my own grieving has been similar, perhaps. Although we can never climb into another’s experience, can we? We can only make space for their authentic self to come forward. How to do this with non-neurotypical children without overwhelming them, or leaving them to fend for themselves can be a challenge. How much space does each child need? How much holding? 

When I was 18 years old, my own mother died. She had been sick for a while, so I had been given a warning, which I am thankful for. I had had time to be with her in our own home, to hold her hand when she was napping, and to wake up to her squeezing my hand. I believe my grieving process was allowed to happen the day she told us she knew she was dying. She was there to help me through it, at least partially. The day that she died, though, I remember walking down the hallway in my house. The hospice nurse wanted to talk to me, and I felt cornered. I was literally turning the corner of the hallway and she had physically cornered me, but also I knew I wouldn’t have the right answer for her about “how I was doing.” I needed space. I needed caring for. I needed community. I felt that if in that moment, I didn’t answer her questions correctly, I might have to see a social worker, or worse, a therapist (I know, ironic,) and there was therefore something wrong with me and it all felt too overwhelming in the first place. I could do most things on others’ terms.

But not this.

I think, without knowing it at the time, what I needed was community: a group of people who knew what I was going through for the next year (and beyond) and who could just know. Perhaps without saying a word (or requiring me to,) yet knowing what I needed. I imagine that when we lived in villages and smaller communities, this was the norm – everyone knew when there was a tragedy and maybe some random friend or the guy who ran the corner store said the right thing at the right time, he knew your mother and told you a memory he had of her at just the right time, and you felt held, supported, and seen by your community. 

Today, for better or worse, the communities that most of our children exist in are their schools. This puts added pressure on teachers. It is also a community where all parts are not necessarily connected: all professionals in the school system, whether public or private, do not always have time to talk with each other about each student, and many students travel to different neighborhoods to attend their schools, often for good reasons, but this means that most children’s living community is not connected to their school community. 

I was a Sophomore in college when my mom died. Two of my college friends were taking a Human Development class as part of their requirement to become teachers. I had no idea what I wanted to do, so I signed up for the same classes with them. One day our teacher was talking about Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s stages of dying. This was the ‘80s and I think this was a pretty new idea at the time. I had heard my mom talking about Kübler-Ross at some point. In class, I was triggered by this topic. I cried and cried. It all came pouring out. I went into the hallway and really couldn’t grab a hold of myself. I had to leave the class altogether that day. My friend tried to tell the teacher the back story. I don’t think she gave much of a response. I was not a good student, especially this term. Nevertheless, later that semester, when I was fighting to save my grades, I wrote a long letter to this teacher asking for a better grade than a “D.” The letter I wrote was cathartic for me. I had not opened up to many about my mom’s death, which had happened that same semester, and I imagined she would be open to hearing about how it was impacting my grades. (It was a long letter.) She did not respond and I received a “D.” 

Our students and children connect with their teachers in ways that we may not always understand. Some of us are their community, but this may be lost to us among the paperwork, the deadlines, and the too-many-students that we are responsible for. The school systems that we have set in place across the globe today are not always the best place for the adults who are supposed to be leading. And yet, these are the communities our children are growing up in. There are humans developing in these communities – whether we are up to the challenge or not. 

This student’s teacher understood that she was his community – her small special ed classroom was where he felt he belonged. She checked in with him from time to time in a gentle way. He didn’t want to talk when asked so much, but things came up organically in the classroom and in therapy with me. I also received permission to reach out to the school social workers at his middle school, one of which happened to be from the student’s community. It ended up that he knew the family. He was an old-school community supporter and, for lack of better words, got it. Over the next year, he also reached out to the student to check in on him too – not to pressure him into saying the right words, but to let him know he was there. 

That a non-neurotypical student does not act appropriately or in an expected way in any given situation should not be a concern or a reason to not be concerned. Perhaps it could be a place to hold space, let them know we are imperfect but are here for them should they need us. 

It’s ok to assume the best of them. 

*Facts have been changed to protect the student and his family. 

©2022 Teresa Currivan