What Should I Do When My Child With Autism is Anxious?
By: Courtney Kowalczyk, M.Ed.
Anxiety can be debilitating for many individuals, especially those affected by autism and other neurodevelopmental conditions. Last month, I shared specific symptoms and changes in behavior to consider when determining whether or not your child or student is anxious. Now that you know what to look for in relation to anxiety symptoms, the next step is to understand ways in which you can help your child or student work through and reduce that anxiety.
Individuals cope with anxiety in many different ways; and as parents and teachers, it is important for us to guide our children without exacerbating the level of anxiety the child is experiencing. The most important person in helping someone work through anxiety is you. You, as the guide, can make the difference in increasing or decreasing anxiety for your child or student just by the way that you interact with them. Here are several suggestions and ideas for you to keep in mind when your child or student becomes anxious.
- Stay calm. As a parent or teacher, it is important for you to act confidently as a guide to your child or student. If you become anxious when your child or student becomes anxious, then their anxiety level is going to continue to increase. As guides, it is our job to remain calm and composed during stressful situations. It is important for you to model for your child or student how to behave calmly and not overreact.
- Be quiet.During moments of anxiety, adults tend to cope with the stress by talking more; however, this is not helpful in relation to reducing anxiety for children, especially those with neurodevelopmental disorders. Language can take quite a bit of effort to process; and if someone is already anxious, it is going to take even longer and may exacerbate the situation. By remaining calm and using as few words as possible, you can support your child or student in a more effective manner.
- Slow down. When a child is anxious, he or she may not be able to process information as effectively as normal. For children with neurodevelopmental disorders, processing can be significantly altered when feelings of anxiety are present. It is important for you to remember that as the guide, you need to slow down everything that you are doing and saying in order to give the child time to process. If you tend to wait 5 seconds for a response during typical interactions, then wait 20 to 30 seconds during moments when anxiety is high.
- Be observant. When a child’s level of anxiety is increased, there is some reason for the mental state change. As the guide, it is your job to take a step back, look at the situation, and try to figure out what may be causing the anxiety. Is there a transition approaching? Does the child need more sensory input? If you can pinpoint the source(s) of anxiety, then you will be better equipped to help the child cope.
- Know your child or student. As individuals, we all have different forms of relaxation that we enjoy. For some it is reading a book, and for others it may be bouncing on a trampoline. Whatever the preferences are, it is important to know what strategies help your child or student to relax and calm down. This may include deep breathing, quiet time, physical activities, deep pressure, swinging, or being left alone for a period of time. These are just a few examples of different strategies that can be used with children during anxious time periods; however, it is important for you as the guide to know what will work best for him or her.
Over the past few months, we have examined what anxiety is, the symptoms of anxiety, and suggestions for helping individuals cope with anxiety. As the guide for our children and students, it is our job to recognize moments when they may be facing high levels of anxiety and then guide them through it. The way we react and guide our children or students during such times can make a big difference in their level of anxiety.