The "Nervous" Child on the Autism Spectrum

There is no doubt that kids with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism (HFA) are much more prone to nervousness than their neurotypical peers. The nervous child on the autism spectrum is one who:
  • has low self esteem
  • is easily frightened
  • is easily upset by minor inconveniences (e.g., small changes in routine)
  • lacks self-confidence
  • cries a great deal on slight provocation
  • worries about family, school, friends, or activities
  • worries about things before they happen

Nervous kids on the spectrum are often overly bothered or sensitive.  Some may seek a lot of reassurance from parents, and their nervousness may interfere with many of their day-to-day activities. Moms and dads should not discount their youngster’s inability to cope “normally.”  Because nervous kids may also be quiet, compliant and eager to please, their difficulties may be missed.  Moms and dads need to be alert to the signs of excessive nervousness in their child so they can intervene early and prevent further complications.

Here are some tips to help your nervous child to learn to relax and be peaceful:

1. Activities that encourage cooperation rather than competition are especially helpful in fostering self-esteem. For example, mentoring programs in which an older child helps a younger one learn to read can do wonders for both children. Volunteering and contributing to your local community can have positive effects on self-esteem for everyone involved.

2. Aspergers and HFA kids are generally not helped when moms and dads tell them to stop being afraid of something. What is helpful is an approach in which you acknowledge their fears and at the same time let them know that you will help them overcome these fears.

3. Be a positive role model. If you're excessively harsh on yourself, pessimistic, or unrealistic about your abilities and limitations, your child might eventually mirror you. Nurture your own self-esteem, and your child will have a great role model.

==> How To Prevent Meltdowns and Tantrums In Children With High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's

4. Be spontaneous and affectionate. Your love will help boost your youngster's self-esteem. Give hugs and tell her you're proud of her when you can see her putting effort toward something or trying something at which she previously failed.

5. Comfort your youngster and let him know that you will work on problems together as they arise. He is never alone.

6. Create a safe, loving home environment. Children who don't feel safe are at greatest risk for developing poor self-esteem. A youngster who is exposed to moms and dads who fight and argue repeatedly may feel they have no control over their environment and become helpless or depressed.

7. Don’t “jump in” too early to help “fix” your youngster’s problems. Remember to give him lots of time to express his negative feelings around worries and problems first where you are just listening and acknowledging feelings before helping him to figure out a solution.

8. Establish a regular bedtime routine consisting of quieter activities that help your youngster to gradually relax.

9. Establish consistent daily routines and structure. Routines reduce nervousness, and regular daily patterns emphasize predictability. A regular routine will give a sense of control to both parent and youngster. Nervous kids do not cope well with a disorganized, spontaneous family life style.

10. Give positive, accurate feedback. Comments like "You always work yourself up into a meltdown" will make Aspergers and HFA children feel like they have no control over their outbursts. A better statement is, "I can see you were very upset with your sister, but it was nice that you were able to talk about it instead of hitting her." This acknowledges the youngster's feelings, rewards the choice made, and encourages him or her to make the right choice again next time.

11. Help your youngster to understand that the negative and pessimistic things she says to herself about herself are not helpful and can influence how she feels and behaves.

12. Help your youngster notice different feelings by naming various feelings she or others may experience. Explain how people show their feelings (e.g., through faces, bodies, words) and that showing your feelings is an important way for others to understand how you are feeling. Help your youngster notice how different feelings “feel” in her own body (e.g., tight hands, butterflies in stomach, etc.).

==> Parenting System that Significantly Reduces Defiant Behavior in Teens with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism

13. Help your youngster with their worries and problems by teaching him how to problem-solve by defining the problem, brainstorming all possible solutions and their consequences, and choosing the best solution.

14. Identify and redirect inaccurate beliefs. It's important for moms and dads to identify their child’s irrational beliefs about himself, whether they're about perfection, attractiveness, ability, or anything else. Helping children on the spectrum set more accurate standards and be more realistic in evaluating themselves will help them have a healthy self-concept. Inaccurate perceptions of self can take root and become reality to these children.

15. It is helpful for kids to talk about their feelings; however, talking about feelings is not easy for special needs kids, especially when they are asked directly. It is important for moms and dads to watch and listen carefully for the times when the youngster does express feelings, either directly through words or indirectly through behaviors. At these times, you can help him by acknowledging and accepting his feelings through simply reflecting them back to him and refraining from providing advice or asking questions. When a youngster’s feelings are criticized, disapproved of, or not accepted by the mother or father, his internal sense of self is weakened.

16. It is important for these young people to have limits set and consequences for breaking the limits. Kids feel secure when there are limits setting restrictions on inappropriate behaviors.

17. Learning relaxation skills will help kids feel better when they are anxious, worried or scared. It will also help them learn that they have some control over their own bodies rather than being controlled by their nervousness. One way to help your youngster relax is to encourage slow, deep breathing. Another way to relax is to ask her to alternately tense and relax her muscles. You can also help your youngster use her imagination to relax. Help her to imagine a safe and relaxing place and to notice the good relaxing feelings in her body.

==> Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management to Children and Teens with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

18. Listen to your youngster and allow him to express his feelings though his fears sound irrational. Let him know he can always talk to you when anything is bothering him.

19. Meet with your youngster’s teacher to find out how he is doing socially and academically and ask for help in getting your youngster to school.

20. Never make fun of, ridicule, scream at, punish, or demean your youngster because of his nervous demeanor. Do not allow family members, or other adults do so either.

21. Provide opportunities for exercise. Exercise is helpful in relieving stress and helping your youngster’s body to relax.

22. Soothing an autistic youngster is a very helpful strategy that moms and dads can use in relieving nervousness. These strategies communicate to the youngster that she is safe and cared for. Verbal reassurances of safety and love, rocking, cuddling, holding, massage, singing, and telling stories are just some of the soothing strategies that moms and dads can use. Moms and dads may be surprised to realize that their kids may sometimes need soothing that seems to the parent to be too “babyish” for the youngster’s age. However, nervous kids DO need extra soothing experiences that relax and relieve the tension in their bodies.

23. Take care of the basic needs of your youngster – especially to prevent fatigue and hunger.

24. Take stock of what is happening at home. Are there stressful situations going on that are worrying your youngster? Are mornings tension-filled as you try to get everyone out the door? Reduce house-hold stress as much as possible.

25. There are many kid’s books available that deal specifically with nervousness, fears and worries. These books can be very helpful for kids as the stories will often model various ways of coping with fears and nervousness.

26. Watch for signs of abuse by others, problems in school, trouble with peers, and other factors that may affect your child’s self-esteem. Encourage your child to talk to you or other trusted adults about solving problems that are too big to solve by himself.

27. When your child is feeling nervous, encourage her to engage in activities she enjoys (e.g., playing with a favorite toy, doing a fun art or craft activity, doing something active outside, playing a game, reading a book, playing with friends, etc.). Aspergers kids will often need the assistance and attention of their moms and dads to engage in these fun activities if they are feeling nervous.

==> Parenting Children and Teens with High-Functioning Autism: Comprehensive Handbook 

28. While these kids are generally not helped when parents demand that they face their fears all at once, they are helped when parents can gently encourage them to approach feared situations. This is because exposure to feared situations leads to desensitization and reduction of the fear and nervousness. However, approaching feared situations can be difficult for nervous kids since they would rather avoid them. One way of helping a youngster approach a feared situation is to go about it in small steps so that each step is achievable and gradually becomes a little more difficult. Another important strategy for moms and dads is to reward the youngster for trying to approach a feared situation. The boy or girl will also find it helpful to be reminded that the fear will get smaller over time. In addition, kids can be reminded of fears and difficult situations that they have overcome in the past.

29. Severe nervousness in these kids can be treated. Early treatment can prevent future difficulties (e.g., loss of friendships, failure to reach social and academic potential, feelings of low self-esteem, etc.). Treatments may include a combination of the following:
  • behavioral treatments
  • consultation to the school
  • family therapy
  • individual psychotherapy

30. As a last resort, if nervousness becomes severe and begins to interfere with your youngster’s usual activities, (e.g., separating from parents, attending school, making friends, etc.), then consider anti-anxiety medications prescribed by your doctor.

More resources for parents of children and teens with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism:

==> Launching Adult Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism: Guide for Parents Who Want to Promote Self-Reliance

==> Unraveling The Mystery Behind Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism: Audio Book

==> Highly Effective Research-Based Parenting Strategies for Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

==> Do you need the advice of a professional who specializes in parenting children and teens with Autism Spectrum Disorders?  Sign-up for Online Parent Coaching today.

==> Parenting System that Reduces Problematic Behavior in Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism


Anonymous said...

this morning we sent our daughter with high functioning ASD, seperation anxiety to a regular church camp for a week. Getting her to go was almost impossible, but she did end up going. her therapist recommends she go and do all that she is possible of doing, trying to figure out how to cope with these situations on her own. She has learned to rely on me to "fix" everything, and is very well behaved outside the home. But, where is the line of pushing too far??? And do we have to push, so they learn what the are capable of on their own?

Anonymous said...

Our Aspie will start displaying subtle tics when he becomes anxious (grunting, eye blinking, head shaking, Finger snapping etc.). Not overly obvious or disruptive but readily apparent to those close to him. All summer tic free. School starts on Wednesday and the tics are beginning to raise their silly heads. He is becoming self conscious about it. Any ideas on how to handle?

CDPhillips said...

We have an Aspie teenager. She, very rarely, confides in either my self or her dad. I have to watch for signs that she's nervous or apprehensive about something. Then I can't ask directly, but have to go through a series of questions to find out what is bothering her. This seems to work as she doesn't feel threatened. She'll start a private school this year where they will teach her to ride public transportation. I think this will give a lot more self esteem and confidence in her abilities. Sometimes, she needs to be pushed, but I have to do it subtly...basically, let her think it was her own idea. Everything with her is a work in progress, but I keep my patience (majority of the time anyway)and let her experience what she needs to. However, I let her know that I am always there and she doesn't have to rush anything. Each person is different, you just need to find what works for you and your child.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this I needed this my 7 yo aspie son is overly nervous especially concerning his brother. I freak out because he just has a total meltdown at the tiniest things and Im afraid he will give himself a heart attack. This helps me so much.

Anonymous said...

My 9 yo daughter has a ton of anxiety. I'm afraid it will get worse with puberty. Hopefully we can work through it so she won't be as anxious/worried as an adult.

Anonymous said...

am i 2 over protective i want to go on my sons first day of middle school i afraid he will get lost and they wont know where he is he has never been there

Anonymous said...

maybe you don't need to go along the first day, but I would encourage you to go before school starts for a private tour and to meet his teachers. If he is on an IEP, you could request some extra attention for him as he transitions into middle school. and if you call his case worker use the word "transition" when you are discussing it with them.

Anonymous said...

This is perfect timing for me. My husband is currently deployed to Afghanistan. Our 7 yr old aspie finally admitted shortly after his dad left that he's nervous about the deployment. I've been struggling to help him learn to cope.

Anonymous said...

So glad I took the time to read this! My son is five and in the process of being tested for asp. He has always been a cautious child but as he has gotten older his anxiety has really increased! He won't play in the backyard by himself and our next hurdle is getting him to sleep in his own room.

Anonymous said...

I really appreciate this post. I?

Anonymous said...

Thanking God my Aspie is NOT;)

Anonymous said...

My son is in his teens. His anxiety is high especially when he goes out with friends or goes to school. He will ask 100 times...will I be okay. I don't get fustrated with him and tell him ...yes you will be fine and then tell him what he can do if he doesn't feel comfortable such as when he is in school. It helps him to be reassured and what he can do when he starts feeling anxious.

Unknown said...

My daughter has been so anxious about going to school, field day, public speaking that she made herself sick and vomited.
Anything new or unplanned just causes meltdowns. She also does not communicate. So I am at a loss sometimes.

Raising Kids with Autism Spectrum Disorder: Parents' Grief and Guilt

Some parents grieve for the loss of the youngster they   imagined  they had. Moms and dads have their own particular way of dealing with the...