Special Educational Needs
Helping Children with Autism to Cope with Anxiety
Social interactions govern every community around the world, playing a huge role in daily life.
Autistic people process the world differently because social understanding isn’t instinctual. Their brain dedicates huge amounts of energy just to cope around others. Leaving no room to process their surroundings or to understand their own thoughts and emotions. Many autistic children shut out social interaction, feeling safer focusing on a predictive obsession or comforting object instead.
Every child is constantly learning about their own body. They’re only beginning to experience and understand their thoughts and feelings. Without the ability to communicate what’s wrong, children often feel vulnerable and meltdown just to defend themselves.
A fatigued mind struggles to process regular situations as they change, and little things become triggers for huge emotions.
Trying to process everything at once, all the time, while struggling to understand their own body, it’s no wonder anxiety is most common in autistic children.
Common signs of anxiety include:
- Needing more routines, struggling with minor changes
- More difficulty sleeping
- Regular defensive meltdowns or temper tantrums
- Avoiding or withdrawing more than usual from social interaction
- Stronger reliance on obsessive interests and rituals (i.e. lining up or spinning objects)
- Increased personal stimulation (stimming) (i.e. rocking, spinning, flapping)
- Self harm (i.e. banging head, scratching or biting hands, arms).
Make a list of the child’s unique signs that indicate they’re feeling anxious (worried, fearful etc). Ensure it’s available to educators, carers, family members and close friends so they can step in as soon as possible to offer support whenever the child needs it.
Early intervention is the best approach
Early intervention can be applied to anxiety and stressful situations. The sooner the child receives support, the sooner they’ll feel safe again, and they’ll be less afraid next time, just knowing they won’t be alone through it.
Anxiety triggers fall under six main categories:
- Specific Phobias
- Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
- Social Anxiety Disorder/Agoraphobia
- Generalised Anxiety Disorder
- Separation Anxiety Disorder
- Panic Disorder
Common everyday triggers may include:
- Changes in routine (i.e. regular activity cancelled on short notice, friends changing rules to a playground game)
- Changes in environment (i.e. movement of furniture, new play equipment, change of classroom, moving house)
- Unfamiliar social situations (i.e. new people, new group activity)
- Sensory sensitivities (i.e. loud or unexpected sounds, bright or flickering lights, unexpected or unwanted physical contact with others, irritating clothing materials, strange or new food textures and tastes)
- Fear of a daily situation, activity or object (i.e. sleeping in own bed, going to the toilet, balloons, vacuum cleaner, car ride)
Each child’s triggers are unique and always changing as they grow. At the start of a party, a day at child care, a new school term, they’ll be excited, but after a few hours, days, or weeks (depending on the event) the constant social interaction and transitioning, fatigues their mind. A fatigued mind struggles to process regular situations as they change, and little things become triggers for huge emotions.
Giving advanced warning about plans and setting realistic expectations helps the child feel in control of what comes next.
Add the child’s triggers to the list of signs, and stay aware through active social settings. Watch how the child’s interactions change and try to step in before they become overwhelmed.
Support begins with understanding
Teach the child to recognise their body’s signs when they’re scared or worried. Make it visual and concrete by drawing an outline of a body and add their unique signs to different parts (hands, chest, stomach). Some people get sweaty hands, short of breath, a quickened heart beat, their body shakes, they flap their hands, etc.
Once the child is confident with their own signs, start introducing ways to calm themselves in a safe and comfortable environment.
Strategies to cope with anxiety:
- Closing eyes for a few moments
- Holding or looking at favourite comforter item
- Reading favourite book
- Going to a quiet and safe area for alone time
- Jumping on a trampoline*
- Running around the yard*
- Taking long, deep breaths*
- Counting slowly to 10
*Set specific numbers for each
Every child is different
Some enjoy physical activity, feeling confident and relaxed after a good burst of energy. Others crave solitude and quiet time, letting their mind relax and rejuvenate. Discover what works for your child and gently guide them to try it when they’re beginning to feel anxious. Add the strategies to the list of unique signs and triggers so others can help too.
Modelling and encouraging resilience is a proven way to teach positivity during challenging situations. Focusing on effort made, instead of the end result, helps the child feel confident that little steps are big achievements too. Easing the pressure they put on themselves when they fail.
Preparation helps the child feel in control
Some situations may need to be avoided, but others you can prepare for. Giving advanced warning about plans and setting realistic expectations, helps the child feel in control of what comes next. Social stories and visual timetables are great ways to walk through situations before they happen. The images set down each invisible step as concrete pictures, letting the child prepare for the next change.