If your loved one with autism has never been to a funeral or other death ritual event within your religious or cultural traditions, it is important to explain what will happen at the event and what they may experience. Individuals with autism are often very literal; so if the person who has died will be buried or cremated, the facts should be explained without euphemisms. These details may include seeing the body of the person who has died or an urn with cremains. You could visit the location beforehand to walk through what will happen and/or what they will see, smell, and touch at the place where the funeral or other service will be held.
Many religious traditions include beliefs in concepts such as angels and Heaven or an afterlife. It is important to recognize that for some people with autism, just as with neurotypical people, these may bring comfort, but for others, the abstract nature of these statements may be confusing. What matters is whether those beliefs are helpful to the individual. Visit the Faith Rituals section for a brief overview of different religious traditions.
As always, be honest and clear about what to expect, using factual and direct language, avoiding euphemisms. Whether before or during the ritual, think about their senses and explain what and who they will see, what they will hear, what they might smell, what they might be able to touch. Offering clear, factual answers to questions about these situations is important. Many ritual events include a lot of people, many who may want to give the person with autism a hug or shake their hand. Your autistic loved one might not be comfortable with this physical contact and should be supported and validated in their decision. They may also find it helpful to receive guidance about what clothes to wear (but also helpful to have their choice of clothing accepted), how they may choose to interact with others, or what to say if they want to participate in the ritual by sharing a poem or special memory of the person who died.
Depending on the needs and challenges of the person, it may be helpful to model responses to comments and situations that may be encountered at a funeral or other event. Because autism can make it hard to effectively respond to social cues, you may want to prepare the person by rehearsing responses to other mourners’ sympathetic comments and gestures. This practice may help alleviate some of the social anxiety related to attending.
To the degree possible, allow the individual with autism to decide how they wish to be involved in any ritual event at their level of comfort. Consider whether they can have a role such as being a pallbearer, playing an instrument, or handing out memorial pamphlets, and offer a choice. Respect their choices and provide options at any time during the process if they begin to feel uncomfortable. If people are expected to take communion at a memorial Mass or kneel in front of an open casket or to throw a handful of earth onto the casket, explain the expectation and offer a choice. You might want to offer the option of arriving either significantly before the event and leaving early, arriving when the event is nearly finished to catch the end of it, or participating in only part of the event.
Be sure that the autistic adult has the opportunity to choose people who can be present and supportive with them during rituals, especially if family members or other regular members of their supportive network will be actively involved with the event. Anticipate the kinds of support needed and plan for it. If they require a schedule, create one and build in breaks. Ask them if having an item of comfort such as a fidget item or water bottle will be helpful. Let them decide what to bring.
Be available after the events conclude to help your loved one with autism process their experiences. While you may gently inquire about their responses, be respectful of their freedom to decide whether and when they want or need to share their reactions.