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Autism and Anxiety: Management Strategies

yellow faces with happy, sad, angry, anxious expressions. Autism and anxiety

What approaches can I use to manage anxiety?

Both autistic adults and children experience high levels of anxiety. There are many strategies that you can teach your child so that they can have lifelong skills in reducing their own anxiety (e.g. mediation, deep breathing and taking a break). However, for most autistic people, a lot of their anxiety stems from the environment around them, including a lack of understanding around autism. This lack of understanding can mean the environments are stressful and not autism friendly, and can also mean that autistic people need to ‘mask’ or pretend to be someone they are not, and this can cause huge stress also. Helping could mean reducing the amount of noise in the home or school. It could mean preparing the child for upcoming changes to their daily schedule. It could mean trying to find a school with a lower class size. It could mean being very open about autism with everyone in your child’s life, and educating them that behaving “autistically” is a valid way to be. However, it is not always possible to change or control every environment. Sometimes changes need to be made around interacting in that environment. So for example if a school with smaller class sizes is not possible, could there instead be very frequent movement breaks or quiet times in the garden throughout the day. As a society we must be more aware of what it is that is stressful for autistic people in terms of the education system, the workplace, our environment and look at how we can change that. 

As a parent, if your child is highly anxious make sure that the home environment feels safe and calm for them. If you know your child becomes particularly anxious in school for example, prepare support for them when they come home for example a sensory blanket and a quiet environment. Look at how your or your child’s energy is being spent. Balance the amount of energy they spend on various activities and tasks. If, for example, social interaction causes them to become anxious, balance that energy with something that they enjoy. Surround them with people who let them be themselves. Learn to understand your anxiety triggers and figure out whether you can change that or change how you interact with that. Finding coping strategies that work for your child might take a while but do not give up, small changes across the child’s environment and social world will build up to larger positive changes over time. 

 

What calming strategies can I try at home?

There are a number of ways that you can create a calm autism-friendly environment at home, therefore reducing anxiety and the risk of a meltdown. 

  • Predictability is a great way to keep your child calm. As much as possible, have a predictable routine at home for your child. If you know of any upcoming changes to that routine, introduce those changes as far in advance as possible preparing your child for a difference in their routine. 
  • Providing sensory toys at home can be a useful way to help your child manage their anxiety. You do not need to buy expensive sensory toys, something as simple as a squeezy rubber toy or sparkly lights can provide a sense of comfort for your child when they are feeling anxious. 
  • Engaging your child with something they are interested in is a great way to keep them calm, whether it is simply watching their favourite show, playing video games or discussing their special interest with them. 
  • Create a calm sensory space at home. Reduce noise as much as possible, switching off radios or television playing in the background. Dim or switch off harsh lighting when possible. 
  • Allow your child to be themselves, allow them to stim, move around and make noise if they need or want to. Suppressing these can cause a significant increase in anxiety over time. 
  • Meditation is a very useful tool for some people (not all) to manage anxiety. Teaching to deep breath (while difficult) can be a very helpful tool. Teach them that when you take a deep breath in, your stomach goes out and when you breathe out your stomach goes back in. Even practicing this for 1 or 2 minutes a day can really help your child. (Check this webinar for more information on autism-related anxiety and meditation.)
  • Labelling and understanding emotions can be difficult for autistic children (this is not to be confused with difficulties with empathy, which is an autism myth). Teach your child about their emotions. Reading books or watching videos about emotions can help your child better understand how they are feeling. Label emotions for them as you see them, e.g. “It looks like you are frustrated with that zipper.” “You are sad the ice-cream fell.” Ensure that learning about emotions doesn’t feel ‘school-like’ for your child, make reading together a fun activity. As your child begins to develop an understanding of their feelings, start asking them “how are you feeling?” or give the option between a couple of feelings, creating discussion and openness about emotions is a good way to help your child identify and predict how they feel. 

 

What should I do if my child is having a meltdown?

Put simply, a meltdown is a reaction to an overwhelming experience. Sometimes, if a child is having a meltdown there is nothing you can do to help them but sit and wait for them to process it. Children might not be able to rationalise their anxiety or deep breath to help them cope with the meltdown. Sometimes children might say things that they don’t mean or they could lash out and hurt or bite you or themselves. Remember, this is a reaction to extreme stress or anxiety and their behaviour is not intentional, your child needs to be supported. Stay with your child, turn down the lights and stay as calm as possible. Meltdowns can be scary for parents and trigger a lot of different, difficult emotions including anger and frustration. This is a very normal reaction. But it is important despite those big feelings to remain calm yourself. Reacting in an agitated or angry manner could prolong the meltdown or increase your child’s anxiety even more. Some children like you stay close to them, and some children like parents to sit a bit away from them. Your child needs to know that although they whatever they are doing or saying, you still love them and are there to help. If you can, you could try asking your child (when they are calm) what they think would help when they have a meltdown. If they don’t have the language to tell you this, you can learn by trying different ways of supporting them and see which is more effective and supportive for your individual child. 

 

How do I prevent my child from having a meltdown?

First of all, it is very important to read and learn about meltdowns and hear autistic people describe what it is like (there are many autistic people who write about their experience of these, as well as creating informational videos on YouTube). Forming a true understanding of the process of a meltdown is helpful for understanding the causes for your child. Understanding the causes of anxiety for your child is helpful to learn how to prevent a meltdown as best as you can. All the strategies mentioned above to help manage your child’s anxiety will also support preventing the meltdowns. It really is about looking at your child’s life and your child’s environment, and trying to reduce the sensory overload, reduce the stress, and looking at the things that aren’t working for your child. Again, lots of small changes to reduce anxiety in your child’s life in different areas, will lead to positive changes in the long term. Treat each meltdown as a learning experience, looking at where it usually happens and what usually happens before them. The most important place to you’re your energy is in preventing meltdowns as once a meltdown occurs there isn’t much you can do except to remain calm, and provide support. 

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