Today I’m continuing with my monthly series on parenting autistic children. This post is about managing anxiety. Anxiety is usually a big feature in an autistic persons life. Not surprising considering how strange and confusing the world can be for those on the autistic spectrum. So managing anxiety is very important and useful skill to teach our children.
How does anxiety present in autistic children;
Naturally every individual is different but these are some of the ways I have seen anxiety manifest in my son and myself. If you recognise any of these issues in your child the chances are the root cause will be anxiety.
Stimming – a comforting repetitive action.
Resistance to new ideas and changes in routine – when my son is anxious he is much less flexible and can find new things difficult.
Self harm – difficult to discuss but autistic children who are anxious can pick themselves until they bleed or otherwise hurt themselves to cope with their anxiety.
Obsessive behaviour – autistic people can be a little obsessive and when we are anxious this can get out of control. Sometimes this crosses the line into OCD.
Sleep difficulties – this can be difficulty in going to sleep because of anxious and obsessive thoughts or night time waking.
Meltdowns – sometimes the anxiety becomes so intense that we lose control of ourselves. How this looks will vary from person to person.
Withdrawal and shutdowns – we can struggle to communicate or engage with anyone outside of our head.
Helping your child with their anxiety;
Help your child to recognise anxiety. Last week I wrote about my difficulties recognising emotions. Your child may also struggle to connect the experience and sensation with a specific emotion. Teaching them to recognise anxiety can make the experience less frightening.
When your child appears anxious this exercise can be useful. Draw a worry map. Do this by drawing an outline of a person, inside the outline your child writes or draws the sensations and feelings they are experiencing. For example butterflies in tummy, tension in the head, tingling in the fingers.
Find out why. Outside the outline they write or draw anything that is worrying them. Difficulties with friends at school, worry over an upcoming exam, concerns over a family member. Whatever it is that could be contributing to their anxiety. It’s good for them to get it out and important for you to find out what is worrying your child.
If this technique doesn’t suit your child find other ways to figure out what is on their mind. Sometimes children find it easier to talk when they are side by side with you doing an activity.
Find solutions. When my son is anxious we work together to find solutions that help him to feel better. They need to be real and practical, saying something along the lines of “don’t worry it’ll work out ok” is not good enough. Autistic children often need real tangible solutions to feel you have taken them seriously and to alleviate their concerns.
If there are concerns around school then work with the school to find solutions (make sure they take your concerns seriously and action any solutions they agree too). If the concerns are not around school then problem solve with your child and agree on actions to help them feel in control of the situation. We like to feel in control!
Focus on positivity; It’s good to talk about worries but not so good to focus on them excessively. Make sure you counterbalance chats about worries with time to focus on the positive things in your child’s life. At the end of each day ask for two positive things that have happened that day to make a habit of thinking positively.
Use relaxation techniques. These can be so helpful in regulating the adrenal system and helping your child feel better. There are lots of guided meditations on You Tube specifically for children. Doing meditation as part of the bedtime routine can help with sleep issues, as it’s calms the brain ready to sleep. We also use deep pressure massage, sensory lighting, bubble tubes and fiddle toys to help our son to relax. I practise yoga which is tremendously helpful, look for a children’s yoga class.
Keep talking. My son recently told me he feels he can talk to me about anything. This made me very happy as one of my aims as a parent has always been to keep open dialogue with my children so they always feel comfortable and not judged when coming to me with their worries. Keep the lines of communication open, try not to look concerned or shocked by anything they share with you. Instead talk through their issues and help them to find solutions and keep them in perspective.