A Good Life for Autistic People Starts with Well-Being
I receive many emails from overwhelmed parents and caregivers about not knowing what to focus on to help the autistic children and adults in their care. Concerns can encompass troubling behaviors, sensory issues, education, the need for employment, healthy relationships, physical well-being, or how to improve daily living skills. At the heart of it all is the need for an autistic person to feel happy, secure, understood, and respected. These things come together to create a sense of well-being.
My friend and colleague in Belgium, Peter Vermeulen, has started the H.A.P.P. Y Project which is a program that develops a personalized workbook for a young autistic person with suggestions for activities that are based on 10 evidence based well-being strategies. You may also enjoy reading his 10 New Year’s Resolutions for an Autism Friendly 2022.
So what can we do to foster and support well-being for an autistic person? Here are a few things to think about.
This is a topic I’ve written about and mentioned in several blog past blog posts and throughout my COVID-19 writing. With more pandemic unpredictability ahead, it’s important to make sure elements of each day are as predictable as possible. This can come from adhering to daily routines, providing a visual schedule to follow, and giving lots of notice for any upcoming changes.
In our household, we have a regular snack time every day at 4 pm of plain popcorn and water. Each day of the week has a different activity, but it remains constant for that day. Tuesday afternoons is my daughter’s volunteer day for her cat charity. Thursday afternoon is swimming. Our children stick to their regular bedtimes and mealtimes even through the holidays.
Make Time for Physical Activity
Physical activity has soared to the top of the priority list since COVID-19 started to support health and well-being. It should be a part of everyone’s week throughout their lifespan. Regular exercise lessens anxiety, improves sleep, increases endurance, builds muscles, develops motor skills and offers opportunities for socializing. Whether being involved in organized sports on a team, solo activities (swimming, archery, martial arts), or just playing outdoors, physical activity offers the chance to grow stronger, expand interests, and adds to the enjoyment of life.
Fitting in exercise to the daily routine can be easier than you think. Does your child like to jump and bounce? Use a mini trampoline for 10 – 15 minutes a couple of times a day. Set up an obstacle course. Walk to the corner store to get a few items rather than drive or take the dog for a walk. We started cat backpacking with our black cat Mr. Darcy to get our daughter walking in the wintertime. She’ll go anywhere if Mr, Darcy is involved!
Develop Leisure Activities
Leisure activities are an important part of life for everyone. Engaging in activities that are fun, enjoyable and interesting increases a person’s well-being, happiness and satisfaction in life. Leisure activities can be done alone or in a group, at home or out in the community. We learn activities by watching others, taking lessons, joining clubs, reading instructions, or simply by trying.
Behaviors of concern are often reduced when a person engages in personally satisfying leisure activities. The ability to entertain oneself can reduce stress for the individual both at home and in the community.
There are also social benefits too. Leisure skills and interests can connect individuals who share the same passion. An activity brings a group of people together who share an interest and like to talk about it. My son, Marc, loves drumming so he regularly attends drum circles. He connects with others who enjoy drumming and they all play music together. He recently joined a community social club that gets together to do a variety of activities. He likes the group so much that he is willing to try new things.
Exposure to a wide variety of activities and experiences broadens interests. Interests will also change over time so it’s important to keep expanding experiences for growth and development.
Allow for Downtime/Unscheduled Time
We’ve turned into a society where every moment of the day has to be filled with an activity or something to do. COVID-19 helped us to realize the benefits of slowing down and having unscheduled time during the day. Free time provides the chance for contemplation, exploration, creativity, and reflection. Moving at a slower pace allows for more practice time to build critical mass, a chance to learn a new skill without being rushed, periods of quiet time to re-group and re-assess, and leisure time to develop and expand on interests and passions.
Unscheduled time allows for discovery and learning at one’s own pace. I have been grateful for this time to slow down and allow for a quieter, slower moving day for personal growth. I’ve seen my daughter’s writing skills grow and my son has enjoyed reading many new books and watching documentaries on all kinds of topics that are new to him.
Indulge in Something that is Pleasing to the Senses
All too often, the sensory environment is an overwhelming experience for autistic people; however there are sensory experiences that can be wonderful, enjoyable and calming. Many children enjoy water or sand play. My son loves to listen to classical music. My daughter loves to have the cat sit on her while she pets him. There are numerous activities that soothe the senses. Discover what makes the autistic person in your life happy. Some ideas could be coloring or painting, yoga, stretching, singing, playing with fidget toys, or taking a bubble bath. Make sure there is time in the day to explore and engage in sensory experiences that are pleasurable.
I wrote a blog post on sensory diets which also gives ideas on how to calm and regulate an overloaded sensory system.
Develop Calming and Relaxation Routines to Lessen Anxiety
An autistic person may not be able to tell you that they are becoming overwhelmed, anxious, or upset. You may see outward signs such as:
- sensory avoidance (hand on ears, closing eyes, retreating somewhere).
- sensory seeking behavior (bumping into furniture, getting into a small, tight space).
- an increase in repetitive behaviors such as touching the same objects over and over.
- bolting or running away.
- withdrawing, not engaging.
- an increase in stimming behaviors such as fast, intense rocking, pacing, self-talk, hair twirling, hand flapping.
- increased echolalia.
- self injurious behaviors like head banging, skin picking or pinching.
Some of these behaviors may be an attempt at self-calming while others may be signs of anxiety or feeling upset. When an autistic person becomes anxious, overwhelmed, overloaded and stressed, that will not be the time to teach calming routines. Develop a toolkit of activities that are soothing and introduce and practice these at optimal times of the day. Have a look at this post to learn about 10 ways stay calm.
Having a positive sense of well-being will help an autistic person in numerous ways. A person who feels happy and fulfilled tends to be more flexible, adaptable, calm, content, and resilient. A happy person will feel positive about themselves and optimistic about their life, moving them beyond just surviving to thriving. The entire family will feel the effects too.
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The demands of autistic children are different from the normal kids. Let’s understand their needs and create an environment to grow better.
Thank you We are learning how to better support or Grandaughter trough you.
How can I educate my Culture about autism. I want to understand autism because my son needs someone to advocate for him, someone who can speak for him someone like me. He can’t talk but I can understand him. Don’t judge my writing skills i don’t have any right now but I will become a writer at least one book I gotta write. My life has been a mystery with lots of unspeakable blessings with Guardian angels.