Education and Counseling for Individuals Affected by Autism Spectrum Disorders


Assisting “Highly-Sensitive” Children on the Autism Spectrum

As a parent with a child on the autism spectrum, you have probably already figured out that kids with Asperger’s (AS) and High Functioning Autism (HFA) are often easily upset by minor circumstances. They may cry at the drop of a hat, or crumble when the parent raises his or her voice at them (even slightly). They seem to have a bionic sense of smell, and want all the tags pulled out from their shirts. They enjoy quiet play more than big and noisy groups, ask lots of questions, and are incredibly perceptive – noticing all the minor details of life. These children may have even been labeled as "shy" or "highly emotional" by parents and teachers. But before you write-off these “special needs” kids as drama queens, consider the fact that these behaviors may part of their disorder.

Parenting highly-sensitive AS and HFA youngsters can be challenging. These kids are often tender-hearted, easily upset, and fearful of many aspects of everyday life. They are often wonderful, caring and loving children who feel emotions deeply, and care about things that their peers seem oblivious to. They are often born with these traits, and it is usually obvious to their mom and dads that they have been highly-sensitive from day one.

The highly-sensitive AS or HFA youngster tends to have many of the following characteristics:
  • asks lots of questions
  • complains about scratchy clothing, seams in socks, or labels against the skin
  • considers if it is safe before climbing high
  • doesn't do well with big changes
  • doesn't usually enjoy big surprises
  • feels things deeply
  • has a clever sense of humor
  • is a perfectionist
  • is bothered by noisy places
  • is hard to get to sleep after an exciting day
  • is very sensitive to pain
  • learns better from a gentle correction than strong punishment
  • notices subtleties (e.g., something that's been moved, a change in a person's appearance, etc.)
  • notices the distress of others
  • notices the slightest unusual odor
  • performs best when strangers aren't present
  • prefers quiet play
  • seems to read the parent’s mind
  • seems very intuitive
  • startles easily
  • uses big words for his or her age
  • wants to change clothes if wet or sandy

Sound familiar? Have you often wondered if some of these traits were due to your “bad parenting” or some other unknown cause? Not to fear.

Here are 25 important tips for assisting your highly-sensitive child on the autism spectrum:

1. Embracing your youngster as a highly-sensitive individual is step #1. Many moms and dads bring highly-sensitive AS and HFA kids to therapy in order to "change" them into less sensitive, more typical children. This simply can’t be done. Being able to see their sensitivity as a gift and accept it as part of your shared journey (whether you yourself are highly-sensitive or not) is the proper perspective to have.

2. Add structure and limits to your empathy. Empathizing with the youngster's plight helps him understand that you feel his pain. Adding structure and limits shows that, while you understand his frustration and anger, some of his behaviors are not acceptable and require that he handles them in a more appropriate manner. For example, when your youngster won't go to bed and is becoming aggressive about it, you can calmly say, "You are going to sleep now." As the youngster progressively becomes more aggressive and complaining, acknowledge what he said, and then repeat your original statement: “You are going to sleep now.” For example: Child says, “But I want to finish playing that game!” Parent says, “I know that you want to play longer, but you are going to sleep now.” Continue to repeat this over and over again if needed (similar to a CD in player that repeatedly skips over a particular spot).

3. Develop a partnership with your sensitive child. Love and accept her unconditionally. You can’t change who she is. She needs to know you love her no matter how she perceives or reacts to the world. Partnering with your youngster includes learning her triggers (e.g., sensory sensitivities), avoiding them, and also giving her coping tools when she feels overwhelmed (e.g., breathing exercises).

4. Most children on the autism spectrum don’t like crowds. Crowds are known to be “meltdown triggers.” So, as much as possible, avoid the mall, supermarkets with bright lights, and going into places where there might be swarms of people or over-stimulation. Perhaps you can do things in “off hours” or plan them when there will be less people.  

5. Try to avoid situations that are tremendously distressing, but within reason. Don’t “force” your sensitive youngster into situations that make her feel upset. While you likely mean well and hope to conditioner her against these situations, they can cause her to withdraw further. For example, if you want your youngster to be less sensitive at school, pushing her is going about it the wrong way. Instead, gently nurture and introduce her to coping strategies that will help her manage her sensitivity at school.

6. Work with your youngster to create ways to interact with the world safely. For example, he’ll likely have an easier time interacting with classmates 1:1 than in larger groups, so set up individual play dates so he gets comfortable with several classmates. Highly-sensitive AS and HFA kids are drawn to other "birds of a feather," and getting these children together to nurture each other's strengths is a good thing. This may mean a little extra effort on your part to help the youngster make play-dates and find other children that play well with highly-sensitive peers.

7. Since highly-sensitive AS and HFA kids are majorly impacted by their home and school environments, it is worth taking the time to create spaces that match their comfort level. For example, Kyle (a 5-year-old child with Asperger’s) is highly-sensitive and loves his "Calm Corner" at home where he relaxes with his headphones, favorite plush toys and markers to feel calm. It is this type of serenity that highly-sensitive kids crave with just the right lighting, colors, sounds and surroundings.

8. Encourage self-observation. Oftentimes, AS and HFA kids feel overwhelmed by their emotions and have a difficult time putting a name to the emotion. For example, when your youngster says he is angry because his sister wouldn't let him play with her friends, you can encourage him to place a mental image to his anger so he can easily identify it the next time he feels it. Putting detail to feelings helps your youngster more accurately describe his feelings.

9. Encourage your youngster to become more assertive and in control. When a youngster feels helpless and experiences feelings of despair, he often feels like he is not good enough, that no one likes him, and that he is not worthy. Begin by empathizing with him (e.g., "I have days when I feel the same way"). Once you've shown that you are on his side, encourage him to figure out how he could better handle a similar situation in the future so he feels more assertive and masterful of the situation.

10. Explain to your youngster why he may feel sensitive and why some things trigger him to feel sad or upset. Talk about grades and testing and how they help to measure his progress. Let him know that his teacher is trying to help. Explain that other kids may taunt and tease because they are unhappy or sad themselves, and teach him about understanding. Explaining the reasons for each episode of “high sensitivity” can help your youngster manage his reactions to different stressful situations.

11. Reminding yourself that your highly-sensitive youngster is an incredibly talented individual is essential – especially when she is "acting out" because of feeling overwhelmed or emotionally upset. This is seeing the forest instead of the trees. Training yourself to see your youngster's strengths first (e.g., her incredible creativity, perceptiveness, keen intellect, etc.) is important because it helps you accept her challenges (e.g., being highly emotional, shy, picky, overly active, etc.).

12. Being “highly-sensitive” is actually a stigma, so it’s important not to “label” your youngster. Help her understand that she experiences the world more deeply than most kids, and help her see the strengths associated with this. She may notice things most people don't, have a better imagination, focus or concentrate better, be a gifted student, or empathize and be sensitive to others. These are all examples of strengths.

13. Just because your youngster is highly-sensitive doesn't mean he doesn't need structure and limits. Being able to give your youngster gentle structure and clear limits with respect goes a long way. For example, if it is “homework time” and he is resisting, you can say, "I realize you want to play video games all evening, but it is time to do your homework. We have agreed to the 6:00 PM study time – and it is 6:00 PM. So please get your books and papers ready.” This is an example of gentle discipline versus punishment.

14. Give choices. Giving your youngster choices helps her feel a sense of control (which is important, because most of the time she may feel like she has no control). For example, you could say, “Okay. It’s time for bed now. If you want to read in bed for 20 minutes before lights out, you need to take a shower, brush teeth, and comb hair now. It’s your choice.” Choices help AS and HFA kids feel empowered in their otherwise chaotic world.

15. Highly-sensitive AS and HFA children need their own space. They often like to play alone. And after a long day of school, most want to chill out. Be sure to give your child some downtime just to recuperate after a busy day.

16. Make an appointment to talk to your youngster's teachers in private. Talk about your youngster, some of her triggers concerning her sensitivity, and what the teachers can do to help her when she becomes distraught. This can help put your youngster's teachers on alert so that they know what to watch for to make school a better experience for your youngster.

17. If you need to make changes to your youngster’s environment (e.g., redecorating his bedroom), make them little by little. He will feel less overwhelmed as a result.

18. Most highly-sensitive AS and HFA kids get easily distressed when they have to make a decision. They often reject opportunities out of fear.  Sometimes the best thing you can do is nudge your youngster to take a risk or try something new. If your highly-sensitive youngster knows you will be there for her and love her no matter what she is feeling, she will have less hesitation in new situations, and will be less self-conscious or risk-averse. If she knows you’re not going to push her to be something she’s not, you’ll both be a lot more relaxed and prepared for the rough spots ahead.

19. Sensitive kids on the autism spectrum respond far better to “requests” rather than “demands.” Parental demands can elicit the exact behavior you are trying to avoid (e.g., emotional meltdowns, outbursts of energy, temper tantrums, etc.).

20. Many AS and HFA children are very sensitive to what people say to them, and who spends time with them on a regular basis. The children that get regular “play time” with a parent feel stronger, more self-confident, and are able to face the world from a place of inner strength versus weakness.

21. Most AS and HFA children love to be creative and playful, whether it is creating a new video game, painting, singing, or discovering their unique talent. The sooner that you match your child with a creative outlet that she loves, the sooner you find someone who has a “place to rejuvenate” and heal herself from the harsh world out there.

22. Instead of viewing your "sensitive" youngster as being inherently flawed, see him as having a special gift. Sensitivity is typical of creative artists and innovators. Some of our greatest thinkers (e.g., Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, Abraham Lincoln, Eleanor Roosevelt) are believed to have been highly-sensitive.

23. Highly-sensitive AS and HFA children need grown-ups to help them (a) manage their rich emotional lives, (b) let go of overwhelming feelings in a healthy way, (c) develop their “special gift,” and (d) gain insight into doing the things that make them happier. Ideally, this “happiness teacher” is their mother or father (but it can be some other trusted adult, too).

24. Work together with your husband or wife to create a home environment with the following 6 elements:
  • self-observation
  • encouragement
  • empathy
  • structure
  • limits
  • empathy

These 6 elements help greatly when dealing with a highly-sensitive AS or HFA youngster.

25. The best that a parent of highly-sensitive youngsters can do is to accept them for who they are, and try to teach them to manage their life in as balanced a way as possible.

In conclusion, remember that highly-sensitive AS and HFA kids should never be ridiculed or punished for their feelings and sensitivities. If their feelings have been hurt, acknowledge that. Their feelings should not be disregarded simply because you may not see the logic behind them.

Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management


•    Anonymous said... Validation is an incredibly important tool. It will take my daughter from 60 back to 0 in minutes. Just knowing that I understand how she's feeling really allows her to calm down enough to talk through the situation.
•    Anonymous said... As a grandparent to an AS/HFA child, when they start getting upset, validate their feelings instead of criticizing them for what lots of people think is bad behavior. Understanding what has upset them is truly amazing since a good portion of the time, they are not upset for something in the moment but rather something that has stayed with them for much longer.

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Jackie Van said...

This is my son to a "T". Thank you for validating him, and my observations.

Whit said...

This is very is very insightful as I am currently in awaiting approval for my son to be accepted by a developmental pediatrician. He is a very sensitive kid who struggles with sensory issues and has meltdowns at school, plays with more than one child, change occurs, socially awkward, or his routine is broken...most adults love him and younger kids, but kids his age do not understand his big heart. Thank you for posting.

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