10 Techniques to Manage Anxiety with an Autistic Child
Autism is a sensory processing disorder that leads to sensitivity to environmental stimuli. An Autistic Child tends to overreact or under-react to environmental stimuli and have difficulty focusing on more than one stimulus at a time.
There is a scale for how individuals with Autism experience each of the 5 senses, from
hyposensitive to hypersensitive, and it is important to note that different stimuli within the same sense can fall at different places on the scale. An example of this phenomenon would be a child who is able to hear high pitched frequencies that others cannot, but is unable to hear low pitch frequencies. Although some children with autism may be “school smarts” socially they are far apart.
Tips that may help improve your Autistic child’s Behaviour
Here are some strategies to help decrease an autistic child’s anxiety and behaviors. However I say this with caution as each individual on the spectrum will have a different set of challenges and/or preferences. There is no one thing that works for all children, and there is no one quick fix, It’s a bit of trial and error but when you figure out what works, pack yourself a bag of techniques to help reduce tantrums, increase understanding, direction following and happiness (theirs and yours). Many of these techniques will work for many children whether or not they have autism.
1. Use Time to Decrease Tantrums
– Transition: Many children have trouble leaving preferred places and activities. Many parents dread that awful moment when they have to leave. Your child may be unpredictable, erratic and scream and fall to the ground, or try to run into a busy street to get away from you or lash out to hit you. One thing that has been life-changing for some parents is using minute warnings/timers: Your child may need a 5 minute, 2 minute, or 1 minute warning before there is a change of activity. These warnings help the children prepare for the transition. They will begin to learn that the warning comes and then the change comes. Eventually, the minute warnings become routine, even if the next task is not. For example: Set a timer on your phone. “In five minutes you need to take a bath.” “In two minutes we are going out.” This helps a child feel more in control without controlling you. When the timer goes off you have to carry through every single time. Do this continuously for some weeks for results. Set your boundaries, stick to them, and follow through.
-Potty training: Use a timer and start taking your child every 30 minutes. When the timer goes off you just let them know its potty time. You can also use a visual chart along with the timer, maybe a picture of a toilet if that helps. For any successful use of the toilet you can use whatever your child favours e.g. edibles. If they choose a tangible such as a toy, they only use it for a minute. If the success on the toilet increases so does the time on the timer and the use of tangibles.
-Leaving the house: A tip for parents who have kids that throw tantrums when they leave the house, consider playing ” going out and coming back” several times until your child notices that “if mum goes away, mom comes back”, increase little by little the time the child has to wait for you in order to open the door. Remember: always stay close to the door, enter ONLY when he/she is quiet (could be for 1 or 2 sec) and ALWAYS REWARD his/her good behavior. You could also introduce some picture cards to help your child understand concepts. Try a picture of you dressed for work and walking out the door and another of your child staying home playing with toys so he/she understands he/she has to stay home when you go to work.
2) Non Time Based Tips to Decrease Tantrums
– Driving: Play music to soothe. For parents with an autistic child who screams when they are driving, try using music to help modulate your child’s moods. It could be any; pop tropical, classical or a nursery song. Make sure to find out in advance what kind of music your child likes. Let him/her listen to it while he is calm, so as to see his true reaction.
-Sensory seeking: Some Occupational Therapists recommend using a weighted vest for children who are sensory seeking. It helps to calm them down and it has the added benefit of helping them focus better on tasks. For example, if your child craves deep pressure touch (like big bear hugs) because it makes his/her body feel in sync and relaxed, you can use a weighted blanket. Besides giving hugs, you can also do big ball squishes throughout the day.
-Head banging: I believe that head banging is one of the ways the child communicates because of limitations with verbal communication. Keep saying; “It is not okay to hurt yourself”. If you notice that your autistic child is getting agitated, try squeezing his/her head to replace the head banging or try to stop him/her by putting your hand between the floor or wall and the head. Avoid eye contact and only talk to your child when they have stopped the tantrum.
–Running off: If you have an autistic child that likes to run off through the door try not to keep them waiting. Work to the point where your child cannot walk out the door without being in “day clothes” and putting on his/her shoes. However, you or the entire family has to be ready to walk out before putting on your child’s shoes because once he/she has shoes on he is ready to leave and gets upset if you make him wait even for a second. Sometimes you may have to just ignore the behavior. I know, it feels a little weird at first, ignoring your child while they are screaming or throwing themselves on the ground. But when they do that, they are attention seeking and giving them any kind of attention reinforces that behavior. They will learn it doesn’t work and realise they get more attention when their behavior is good.
3) Use ‘FIRST/THEN’
Many of other tantrums are over wanting something they can’t have at that moment. A toy, a snack, a trip somewhere RIGHT NOW. Or there is something they DON’T want to do. For many of these situations use first/then. “First___, then____” statements are used to help a child finish a task before getting something motivating.
“First we finish our lunch, and then we can go outside.” “First we will clean up, then we can go out.”
Depending on your needs and your child’s skill set, you can do this verbally, use pictures, or write items on a dry erase board. Many children with autism think in pictures, so that is often the initial go to method. It’s a simple phrase that provides structure in a child’s mind and helps them follow the directions at hand. It can help decrease a child’s frustration because they can understand exactly what is expected of them. It will probably weeks for your child to understand that he will get what he wants as long as he FIRST does what is asked of him.
One thing I would also like to encourage parents and caregivers is CONSISTENCY. It may seem impossible, because you do have to choose your battles. However, when you are consistent with your standards for your child’s discipline, they will come to expect it as part of their structure. (e.g. house rules, safety rules, etc.) ALWAYS make sure you are prepared to follow through with what you say. If you are too tired to execute a negative consequence, do not threaten with one. Your autistic child is smart; they will take control if you cannot maintain it.
4) Reward Positive Behaviour
Reinforcing language identifies and affirms children’s’ specific positive actions and encourages them to continue their appropriate behavior. For example, to an autistic child that shared their item you might say, “I really like how you shared and played so nicely with that little boy”. It’s especially important to recognise behaviours that a child usually struggles with- sharing, being quiet, following directions. With these words, the adult lets the child know that his/her positive behaviors were noticed. This increases the likelihood that they will happen again. In an environment with small children you are frequently saying: no, put that down, don’t do that, put that back, you can’t have that- you can’t eat that, NO NO NO NO– sometimes it’s so nice to recognise and focus on the good. Praise is one of the best reinforcers around.
For some children however, praise means nothing. It’s not rewarding, therefore, it does not increase the good behavior. In this case you must find something that is rewarding. May be a candy or a token or sticker that when accumulated can be used towards a greater reward. I’ve heard some people say, “I don’t like to bribe my child.” To some parents, it’s like getting a pay check for work. We all work for the reward, whether it is emotional, financial or edible or tangible.
5) Focus On What You Want The Child To Do, Not What You Want Them To STOP Doing.
How many of you have screamed at your child, STOP SCREAMING?!!!! with crazed eyes and clinched fists? Minimize the use of ‘don’t’ and ‘stop.’ For example, ‘Walk on the sidewalk’ can be much more effective than ‘Don’t walk on the grass’ for a child who might not hear the ‘don’t’—or for one who isn’t sure where the acceptable place to walk might be. This lets an autistic child know exactly what you want them to do. ‘Stop screaming’ becomes, ‘Quiet please’, ‘Don’t color on the table’ becomes ‘Only color on the paper’. It’s counter-intuitive to the ways most of us usually parent but it works. There are times when there’s no way around a don’t/stop statement. A good example is, ‘STOP HITTING YOUR BROTHER’. Use your best judgement- you’ll figure out when you need to lay down the DON’T law.
6) Remain Calm (YOU!)
This is a hard one for most parents because what usually happens is your autistic child goes out of control and then you quickly follow. It’s exhausting, draining and frustrating. Try and take deep breaths and make sure your words sound calm, even if you are not feeling it. Remind yourself that you are the adult and if you expect your child to modify their behavior then you must too. Children don’t always have the language to explain what they want and need and that can be extremely frustrating for them. Parents are advised to “remain calm” when they introduce a routine.
One must practice a new routine for 30 days straight for it to become a subconscious habit. You can challenge yourself by keeping a calendar. For every day that you don’t scream at your autistic child, you mark an X. Every time you scream at them, you have to start over from scratch with a new calendar. The more days straight you don’t scream at them, the more investment you have in your calendar to lose. So every time you feel like screaming, your mind automatically thinks of all the hard work you would lose and turns on a leash. It works like a charm.
7) Choose Environments Based On Needs
Have you ever done a sensory profile to find out whether there might be sights, sounds, smells that make it physically challenging for an autistic child either at home or in the classroom? You need to understand the role of the environment for a child with sensory integration deficiencies. Areas for teaching or therapy, eating, sleeping, and even bathrooms should be simple so that your child is able to focus on the task at hand. For instance, use pattern intentionally or avoid it entirely. While a simple zig-zag or checkerboard carpet tile pattern may be visually appealing, it can become a fixation for a child with Autism. In some cases you may need to use natural lighting whenever possible. While we may not notice it, some Autistic children are able to see the flicker of a fluorescent light, which can be distracting. More importantly if you can, provide a quiet space for “escape”.
8) Use of an Individualised Educational Plan in School/Therapy
You can have specific services written into your child’s IEP. Once you have a sensory profile, you can accommodate his/her needs during school. For example, a child may use noise cancelling headphones and sunglasses during class. The florescent lighting in class may aggravate some children a lot, so you can have written into his IEP, frequent “Sun Breaks” or maybe you can bring in a toy she/he likes, and let the teachers use it as reward. In my opinion, school works better if you also incorporate the following:
-Behavior Therapy: It makes an autistic child so much less frustrated and so much more understood.
-Speech/ Occupational – Sensory enrichment therapy program to help with mood, eye contact, speech, sleep, and ability to attend to undesired tasks/activities.
9) Of Diet…
Most parents swear by a healthy diet especially gluten and plenty of omega 3 fats. Check this website .
10) Do Read Autistic Logistics by Kate C. Wilde.
It is a great book with lots of information to help your autistic child.
You may also like: Autism and Special Needs : The Loving Push