As a parent, teacher or carer of a child with Autism I expect that you have have spent lot’s of time trying to get to the bottom of the triggers that cause stressful and anxious responses.
To understand anxiety in autism we need to look at the sensory system and how sensory overload may be affecting behaviour and the regulating of emotions.
Anxiet, Sensory Processing AND Sensory Overload
How much sensory information it takes to cause upset differs with every child. Some children over respond to sensory information and some children under respond.
When a child feels overwhelmed….we expect the meltdown….a result of sensory over stimulation. There is just too much information to process….it’s extremely upsetting.
“Because many children with autism are unable to self-regulate, sensory overload can result in sensory-based meltdowns.”
It is said that 75% of children with autism have sensory processing disorder.
Anxiety and “Fight or Flight” Responses
In times of anxiety and stress, our hormones trigger a “fight or flight response.”
When people with autism experience sensory over stimulation, they are unable to regulate the sensory inputs from their environment and their bodies perceive these inputs as threats.
A meltdown is a physiological response and not controllable behaviour .
How can we expect a calm response to sensory situations when your body is perceiving those situations as threats.
Tips to Reduce Anxiety for Autistic Children
1) New Forms of Communication
Visual activity timetables, now & next task schedules and a schedule strip will be helpful in communicating to your child what is planned, and what the expectations will be.
Social stories that walk a child through the plan, from beginning to end, will prevent sudden events and a sense of control that may reduce anxiety
2) Creating a Sensory Diet Plan
Routine sensory diet activities are important to support regulation across the day. Some parents find it helpful to schedule “quiet time” for their child, in order to allow for the downtime proactively before the activity of the day gets to be too much.
3) Deep Touch Pressure
Add deep touch pressure into your child’s day whether it be through a weighted scarf or vest, compression garments, weighted blankets on his bed, or weighted lap pads in the classroom.
The weight and feeling of being grounded has positive effects on reducing anxiety.
4) Know your child’s signs of distress
Nobody knows your child better than you. Signs of distress can be nonverbal indicators that your child is quickly becoming anxious or overstimulated and needs your help regulating before reaching the point of meltdown.
For example when things get too much for my little 8 year old nice in the school playground she would remove her shoes and socks. Telling her off for this behaviour was a disaster rather than recognising that she was experiencing sensory overload.
5) Create a Safe Sensory Space
Create a safe space to calm down and have some quiet time. Quiet areas change the amount of sensory input the child is exposed to. This can be very helpful in situations where sensory overload contributes to anxiety.
6) Create a Sensory BAG
Create a sensory bag that you know will reduce sensory sensitivities and improve tolerance to stressful unavoidable situations.
7) Find tool that can help communication
Consult your speech therapist or teacher on what may support your child’s communication of needs, wants, or emotions. This could be as simple as a visual communication board.
8) Try Self CaLM Down Techniques
If your child is able, calm down techniques such as slowly counting to ten, deep breathing, stretching, meditation, or visualization techniques.
9) Always have a Fidget Toy on Hand
Explore redirecting any potentially harmful behaviors through the use of fidgets when you sense anxiety.