Children with autism are frequently overstimulated by lights, sounds and touch. They may become frustrated and overwhelmed when routines change. They may want to eat only certain foods and become agitated when that food isn’t available. As any parent of a child with ASD will tell you, there are many different situations that could cause meltdowns, agitation or frustration. Calming a child with autism sometimes seems just part of the daily routine.
The following are strategies to help you calm your child:
Take steps to change the environment instead of trying to change your child. Often, there is something in the environment causing a problem, many times because of overstimulation or hypersensitivities. If your child is sensitive to fluorescent lights, for example, try changing to different lighting rather than trying to make your child adapt to the lighting. If you can’t change the environment, consider alternatives, such as wearing earplugs in noisy places or wearing sunglasses when in the mall.
Keep directions simple and short. You may be tempted to try to "talk" your child through the outburst, meltdown or frustration but if overstimulation caused the frustration, continuing to talk will only increase the stimulation. Instead, give short directions or use visual directions and then create a quiet environment, with no talking, to better help your child relax.
Be clear with what your child needs to do. You can give visual instructions or the short direction as stated above, but make sure your direction clearly states what behavior is appropriate and what your child should do.
Use a diversion. Diversions can be listening to music, playing with a toy or watching a favorite video. Often, having your child focus on something other than the upsetting situation can help him calm down, once that happens, you can talk about what caused the outburst.
Focus on what is going on behind the meltdown. You know your child better than anyone else. You know what triggers outbursts and meltdowns. Think about what is in the environment and what may have caused the behavior and then address that first. Pay attention and write down what is going on each time your child has a meltdown so you can better understand what is going on and address the issue before it becomes a major battle.
Modify expectations when necessary. If meltdowns occur each night at dinner, think about whether you are expecting too much of your child. Do you insist that everyone stay at the table until everyone has finished eating? Do you expect everyone to eat everything on their plate? Adjust your expectations to your individual child rather than having general expectations that don’t fit your child’s unique traits.
Balance sensory stimulation. While some children with ASD become easily overstimulated, your child may crave sensory input. Find a balance that works for your child, if sensory input is needed, wrap him up in a blanket, give him a hug or find play items that have different textures for him to manipulate.
Find ways to connect with your child. It can be hard to feel that you emotionally connect with your child. Pay attention to their non-verbal communication such as sounds or facial gestures when they want to eat, are tired or are trying to communicate their needs. Play with your child. Pay attention to what makes your child laugh or smile. Ask about their interests and sit on the floor to play together, even if that means rolling a car back and forth. Set aside time to spend time, do things together your child enjoys, and have fun together. This will help you better understand and connect at times when your child is feeling frustrated.
Don’t expect your child to explain what is wrong until the meltdown is over. Don’t keep asking what is wrong or get frustrated because he can’t tell you. Your child may have limited communication skills or have a hard time expressing his needs during "good" times; during times of frustration this will be even more difficult. Focus on helping your child calm down and talk about what happened later.
Stay calm yourself. It is easy to become frustrated and upset, especially if the outburst or meltdown is occurring in public, but if your child is overstimulated, your high emotional state will only increase this. Stay calm, remove your child from the environment, if needed, state your expectations and then wait it out.
"16 Essential Tips for Calming Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders," 2012, May, Staff Writer, Los Angeles County Office of Education
"General Calming Techniques," Date Unknown, Staff Writer, Tip Sheet 8, The Autism Program
Eileen Bailey is a freelance health writer. She is the author of What Went Right: Reframe Your Thinking for a Happier Now, Idiot’s Guide to Adult ADHD, Idiot’s Guide to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Essential Guide to Overcoming Obsessive Love, and Essential Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome. She can be found on Twitter @eileenmbailey and on Facebook at eileenmbailey.