Anxiety can happen for a range of reasons and individuals on the spectrum may vary in their ability to cope with it. We discussed how children on the spectrum express anxiety through the display of challenging behaviours in our previous article “How are anxieties expressed in autism?”. Following up from that, this article will touch on some practical ways that parents and caregivers can support and help their children manage and reduce their anxiety.
Figure out the trigger
The first step to helping your child manage their anxiety and behaviours is to figure out what is bothering them. Anxiety can cause physical, psychological, emotional and behavioural symptoms. Some examples include fatigue, sweating, avoidance, hypervigilance, or increased repetitive behaviours.
Parents and caregivers may need to observe and take note of these warning signs to figure out the triggers behind these anxious behaviours. Signs of distress or challenging behaviours can be non-verbal indicators that your child is becoming overstimulated or anxious. Some of the common triggers for anxiety in children with autism might include changes in routine or environment, unfamiliar social scenarios, sensory sensitivities, etc.
Provide opportunities to practice in a safe environment
Preparation before a stressful event or social situation might be key in helping your child manage his anxiety. For example, if going to the hairdresser for a haircut makes your child anxious, you can go through the various steps with him. Some exposure will help him feel less anxious about the event. Parents can help by showing him pictures or videos of someone getting their hair cut or even have someone familiar cut his hair first. These steps can help your child know what to expect and reduce their anxiety toward the situation. Remember to keep these scenarios simple and always encourage and praise your child for their efforts!
Relaxation and calming strategies
In addition to ensuring a safe environment for the child, it is important for the child to learn how to express and communicate their emotions and needs in appropriate ways. At times, replacement behaviours are necessary. Replacement behaviours are behaviours that you want to replace unwanted target behaviours. Target behaviours can be disruptive behaviours that impede the child’s learning such as aggression or tantrums.
Some examples of replacement behaviours for anxiety related behaviours include ways to relax and calm down. Parents can assist your child to come up with ways to calm down when she starts being anxious. Some examples include counting slowly to 10, taking deep breaths, closing their eyes, exercise, or playing with their favourite toy. Once the child knows the strategies well, you can guide them to try these methods whenever they feel anxious.
Written by Winnie.