There are many ways to participate in both cultural and religious rituals. Sending sympathy cards or flowers, making a donation in honor of the person, lighting a candle, and saying prayers are all rituals that individuals may want to participate in outside of a formal funeral or other religious ritual.
Whatever the ritual, a person with autism should retain the choice to participate—or not participate—in events at their level of comfort. Given that many traditions include multiple events over many days, a person with autism may elect to participate in some, all, or none of them. Communicate with the individual and their supportive network, if available, about what will happen at the events and what will be seen, heard, felt, and even smelled. Sharing pictures of the actual places where the ritual will take place may be helpful. Many autistic adults are able to make their own decisions around attendance and participation in rituals. For those who cannot, provide opportunities to make decisions around participation. Everyone needs opportunities to say farewells in their own way and a chance to be supported in their grief through ritual. Feeling included, rather than excluded, is usually how people wish to feel.
Many autistic adults take an active role in planning funerals, memorials, and other rituals, either for their parents or other close loved ones. Funeral directors, clergy and others arranging these rituals should be open and flexible to the needs of the person with autism who is planning the funeral and sensitively address their concerns as they would address the concerns of a planner who is not autistic. Questions should always be welcomed and respected and answered with honest and complete responses. As with interacting with anyone, speak directly to the individual, not to a friend or support person who may be with them. If present, the friend or support person can always reinforce what you have said, or rephrase, as needed, or relay whether the individual needs additional interaction.
Whatever the decision about if and or how they will participate, it may be important to appropriately prepare the person with autism for participation in these rituals. The preparation will need to be tailored to the individual. This might include a calendar or schedule of events. Read the individual case studies below for further insight. Some people find social stories helpful. Click here for three social stories about grief, including one on “Preparing for a Funeral” that you can download to read, print, or share.
Situations may arise where the family has made decisions about excluding or including the adult with autism, even if supportive professionals disagree or think it will not be beneficial in helping the autistic adult cope with grief. Remembering that every person grieves in their own way and they may have different expectations for or needs from a particular ritual, it might be helpful to offer multiple opportunities for memorialization or ritual that allow for individual needs and situations.