We were talking recently at work and one of the clinicians shared a story about a client. They had taken a break for a few weeks due to a death in the family and upon their return to work, a severely autistic child came up and said, bluntly and directly: "I'm sorry about your dead dad."
Now, just about everyone who read that probably had a quick intake of breath or a burst of tension driven laughter. Some might even have been offended. But we need to take a closer look.
That child left a preferred activity to come and communicate with the clinician. They formed and said a verbal sentence, something which is not simple for this child to do. They understood that the death was a bad thing and expressed sympathy and caring. They weren't prompted to do or say something, this was entirely spontaneous. The family confirmed that they hadn't spoken to the child about it and in fact, had assumed that it would be beyond their comprehension.
But clearly this child did understand, at least in part. Though their effort may have been considered offensive to someone who did not understand their limitations, it was a sincere effort.
On the flip side of this, we have to ask ourselves: why is that such a horrible way to express condolences?
The clinician said that they discussed it with several other colleagues. They spent over an hour trying to parse the social rules which made "I'm sorry about your dead dad" not okay. Obviously the message itself isn't bad. In the end, they came to an admittedly unsatisfactory conclusion that it is not okay to refer to a person as "dead" in such a blunt fashion. At least four highly trained specialists, all used to breaking down social rules for children with autism, and they couldn't find a way to express the understood but unsaid expectations of appropriate condolences.
Now imagine how frustrating that must be to someone for whom all social rules are like that. All they know is that once again, they have somehow stepped over an invisible border and now have to face hostility or censure. It's no wonder that people with autism tend to suffer from depression and anxiety.
In the end, the clinician accepted the child's condolences at face value and in the sense intended: as a gesture of compassion.