MANAGING OVER-STIMULATION AND STRESS
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.
Children with autism can frequently become overwhelmed or overstimulated by situations beyond their control. As caregivers, teachers and therapists we may not always know the cause of their discomfort so its important to have a toolbox of calming strategies to help kids calm down, refocus and get back on task. Furthermore, you can prepare for a potentially stressful event by allowing a child to choose a calming activity and use it before the event and to calm down afterward. Below is a list of common calming techniques you can use with the autistic children you support.
Recognizing the Signs of Overload
A child under the spectrum 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.
Ways to Stay Calm
Once you recognize the signs of anxiousness, overload, or upset, try some of these ideas to keep a person calm.
RULE OF ONE
Use the rule of one when a child is deeply stressed, anxious or in the middle of a meltdown. Have only one person talk to the child with autism and ask them to do only one thing. Unfortunately, most school models of crises call for bringing in lots of people, lots of people that start talking at once. Rather than calming a situation down, this can escalate it. Remember to just have one person, ideally, ta person the child trusts, ask the child to do only one thing at a time. This should be something simple such as sit in a chair, go to your calm place, or take some deep breaths.
Stop for a moment and squeeze your hands together then open them. As you let go of the tension in your muscles you should notice your muscles are more relaxed than before you started. Here are some simple isometric exercises:
- Making a fist and squeezing
- Pushing hands together
- Pushing knees together
- Shrug your shoulders
- Pushing against a wall
- Pulling against a rope tied around a pole in the playground
For a child who is having difficulty understanding the concept of isometric exercise give them a stress ball or some stretchy tubes to squeeze. You can place these products between their hands, knees, elbows or shoulder and neck to help them learn this relaxation technique.
Like isometric exercises, deep pressure also helps the muscles in the body to let go of tension. Here are a few common ways you can provide deep pressure to children with autism:
- Weighted Items.
- Bear hugs: preferably initiated by child
- Allow the child to wrap themselves up tightly in a blanket or sheet
- Include tools to increase muscle resistance so kids really use the muscles in their hands and fingers.
- Have child rub lotion on their arms and legs. Be cautious about smells, it may seem like a good idea to use “calming” lavender lotion but this may not be socially appropriate for boys. Some children are also very sensitive to smells.
- We have found a soft vibrating products allows a child to provide themselves with calming vibration.
- Provide a small handheld massager the child can control.
PROVIDE A BOX OF TACTILE ITEMS
Some children find very calming a box of interesting things to touch. This can include soft swatches of fabric, soft squishy toys, or small stuffed animals.
CREATE A CALMING AREA
ALLOW TIME FOR PHYSICAL EXERCISE
This really is one of the best things you can do to alleviate stress and anxiety for anyone. Kids stay very active with biking, hiking, adapted fitness classes, golf, bowling, skating and yoga.
There will be good days and bad days. Some days, these ideas will work and other days not. 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.
Stress affects the whole family, and our calming products for autism can help to bring serenity to your home.