Calming Strategies to Support an Autistic Person
It’s been several months now since the world was turned upside down due to COVID-19. Life has changed a great deal with social distancing, hand sanitizing, new rules in public places, and constant, unpredictable changes. As society begins to open up again, there will be new challenges to face. The “new normal” will continue to evolve and depending on how it all goes, there could be a return to restrictions or new measures put into place as more becomes known about COVID-19 and its spread.
It’s important in this new environment to think about teaching calming and relaxation strategies before anxiety escalates. While predictability can go a long way in decreasing anxiety, it may not always be possible in a rapidly changing world. Avoiding, managing, and planning for potentially challenging situations will only go so far, particularly when the way we used to operate in the community has changed so much and will continue to do so, often with little or no warning.
Recognizing the Signs of Overload
A person with autism 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.
- as 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.
Teach Interoceptive Awareness
Interoception is the eighth sensory system. The interoceptive system has little receptors located throughout the inside or our body, in our organs, muscles, skin, bones and so forth. These receptors gather information from the inside of our body and send it to the brain. The brain helps to make sense of these messages and enables us to feel things such as hunger, fullness, itch, pain, body temperature, nausea, need for the bathroom, physical exertion and sexual arousal. Interoception also allows us to feel our emotions.
Interoceptive awareness (IA) is often impaired in people with autism spectrum disorder. They may not feel when their internal system is off. They are not aware of their interoceptive signals telling them they are hot, thirsty, or tired. You need IA in order to self-regulate. IA is also connected to executive function skills like problem solving, flexible thinking, intuition and problem solving.
Teaching IA is a way to help a person on the spectrum understand what their internal body signals are telling them and how to react. Since COVID-19 started, my 21 year old daughter Julia has been describing a feeling that her chest is rising. Together, we figured out this was a sign of anxiety. We then came up with a plan of what to do when this feeling started to creep up which was to do some Wii Fit for 20 minutes to alleviate that feeling. We also go for at least 3 bike rides per week to keep “rising chest” at bay. These strategies are helping Julia to create her own solutions which increases her independence and lessens the chance of a meltdown should things continue to build. This “rumbling” stage is often missed which can then lead to challenging behavior.
If you want to learn more about interoception and how to increase IA, please have a look at Kelly Mahler’s webinar which provides a lot of instruction on this topic.
Ten Ways to Stay Calm
Once you recognize the signs of anxiousness, overload, or upset, try some of these ideas to keep a person calm.
- Offer an escape plan. We talk about this a lot in our Low Arousal Approach trainings. A person may just need to leave the area in order to regain their control and reduce stimulation. In the home, this could be a bedroom. My son’s classroom used to have a one man tent. My son listens to classical music when he needs a break or reads aloud to himself.
- Have a sensory basket or box. Ours has things in it like a fidget spinner, squeeze ball, Tangle toy, and Fidget for your Digit. Some kids like to chew, others needs deep pressure. If you need some ideas for fidgets, have a look at this article.
- Develop some simple exercises or routines that are calming. I really like the book Active Imagination because it has many calming exercises/games in it. The illustrations provide clear instruction and there are no complicated materials required. There is also a series of books for children written by occupational therapist Lauren Brukner that teaches how to recognize anxious feelings and then instructs what to do to feel calm and back in control. Most of her books are geared for ages 7 – 14, but two are for ages 4 – 7.
- Try teaching meditation or meditation techniques. Our son developed his own over the years to classical music. He spends an hour every Monday meditating in his room. He closes his eyes and breathes deeply. He also colours in a coloring book. There are also books on mindfulness practice, but keep in mind that not every person with autism can do this successfully. For more ideas on mindfulness, have a look at this article which also has a great reference section.
- Teach how to self-regulate. Kari Dunn Buron wrote a great children’s book called When My Worries Get Too Big which teaches techniques like deep breathing and counting. She also created a 6 minute video around the book which is well worth watching.
- Distraction. While this may not work every time, providing a distraction can take a person’s mind off what it bothering them. For Julia, there are couple of cat videos that change her mood instantly. Talking about favorite topics and interests can brighten the spirit right away.
- Try doing yoga. Yoga has been a lifesaver for my son. He has been practicing since he was 4 years old. Learning yoga is what moved him into developing his meditation practice. If you need ideas, Yoga for Children and Young People with Autism is a great book to use because it the practice sequences are short and are constructed by ability.
- Allow time for physical exercise. This really is one of the best things you can do to alleviate stress and anxiety for anyone. I discovered figure skating in my 40’s and it changed my life by reducing my anxious feelings. Our kids stay very active with biking, hiking, adapted fitness classes, golf, bowling and yoga.
- Adopt a pet. While I resisted getting a cat for many years, I have to say that adopting Mr. Darcy 5 years ago really improved my daughter’s outlook. There have been numerous studies and stories on how animals can improve the well-being of people with ASD.
- Establish clear routines and schedules. Predictability and familiarity provide a sense of calm. Visual schedules show how the day will unfold. Task sequencing outlines the steps for task completion and fosters independence.
If It All Goes Awry…
There will be good days and bad days. Some days, these ideas will work and other days not. If a meltdown or outburst does occur, do not teach a calming technique in that moment. Try not to reason, argue or talk. Allow time for processing. Offer reassurance when the person is back in control and let them know that things are alright between you and them. Keeping a trusting and open relationship is the foundation for providing solid support for well being.
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