Clingy Behavior in Children with ASD [High-Functioning Autism]

"Any advice on how to deal with separation anxiety in a child with high functioning autism? Dropping him off at school is a nightmare!"

You used to leave your high-functioning autistic (HFA) child with loved ones or drop him off at school with a kiss on the cheek and a quick wave goodbye. Clingy behavior seemed to be a problem only for other children. But, now your goodbyes trigger tears or tantrums – or both.

If your youngster's clingy behavior seems intense or prolonged (especially if it interferes with school or other daily activities), you will want to address this situation sooner than later, because the longer it goes on, the worse it gets and the tougher it is to treat.

Each youngster handles stress differently, so the causes of clingy behavior will be different for each boy or girl. A parent's job is to play detective and figure out what's causing clingy behavior. Sometimes clinginess may be triggered by situations such as:
  • bullying
  • family stress 
  • new child care situation
  • new home
  • new school
  • new sibling

Keep in mind that the goal here is for your child to learn to cope with life without you, however long it takes. 

Here are a few parenting tips that help make goodbyes less stressful:

1. Ask your child if there is anything worrying him (e.g., bullying, illness, bereavement, etc.). Try to identify what might be causing the clinginess and describe his feelings so he begins to understand it. By describing his feelings and expressing your own feelings of wanting to be there for him, he will feel understood and be less likely to need your physical presence as reassurance.

2. Teach how to "talk to the fear." Help your youngster name the feeling (e.g., "I'm afraid"). Then, teach him how to talk back to the fear so he is in charge of the fear and not the other way around. The trick is to have him practice telling himself he'll be okay to build confidence (e.g., "Go away fear, leave me alone. Mom will come back.").

3. Kids on the autism spectrum (as with all kids) build self-confidence through mastering new tasks and contributing to their environment in a helpful way. Create tasks that your youngster can help you with at home (e.g., setting the table, cooking, cleaning up, etc.). The more confident a youngster feels in her abilities, the more secure she will feel in ANY environment.

4. When kids exhibit clingy behavior, it is generally viewed as a positive sign that they feel close and secure in the parent’s care and go to the parent for comfort when they are feeling distress. Responding to clingy behavior by ignoring or punishing it may make your youngster less likely to come to you when he is feeling afraid or vulnerable.

5. Some moms and dads find it easier to sneak out when their son or daughter has a hard time or throws a tantrum each time they leave. But, this will only increase your youngster’s anxiety and clinginess, because she will be afraid to engage in any activity too long for fear that you may sneak out and disappear at any moment.

6. Find people your child trusts (e.g., neighbor, relative, friend, etc.) who know your youngster's quirks, routines, likes and dislikes. Gradually stretch separation times, and slowly broaden your youngster's "inner security circle."

7. If you're leaving your youngster at home or in another familiar environment, give him a gentle goodbye – then go! Encourage your youngster's caregiver to distract him or engage him in a new activity right away. If you're leaving your youngster in a new environment, you might play with him for a few minutes to ease the transition. When you leave, remind him that you'll be back. Be specific about when you'll return (e.g., "after school").

8. Give your youngster something to look forward to. Discuss something fun that will happen while you're gone.

9. Make things more predictable for your youngster by making the schedule or routine as concrete as possible. Although you know your youngster’s schedule, she may not. HFA kids don’t have a clear sense of time, live mostly in the here and now, and have shorter memory spans. Using pictures to depict their weekly schedule (especially when it changes every 2 to 3 days), telling them what to expect next, and reminding them when you will be available to spend time with them (e.g., "Remember, our special snack time is after school") will help reduce anxiety by bringing a sense of orderliness and structure to their day.

10. Socializing with kids the same age can help these young people develop attachments to their peers and can build social skills necessary for interacting with people outside of the immediate family. Set up regular play dates with a friend of your youngster’s choice from school, or schedule a class or weekly trips to the park.

11. Keep the crying and tantrums in perspective. Your youngster's tears and anger are an attempt to keep you from leaving. When you're gone, the tears and anger aren't likely to last long (especially once your youngster is engaged in a new activity).

12. Studies reveal that kids whose mom or dad prepared them for a separation were able to leave the parent far easier and protested far less than those not prepared. So, for example, drive by the birthday party in advance, go meet the new teacher before the first school day, take an online tour of the school before the move, and so on.

13. Leave a special reminder. Offer a blanket, stuffed animal or other comforting object for your youngster to hold while you're gone.

14. Practice saying goodbye. Do some role-playing. Eventually your youngster will learn that he can count on you to return, just as you did in the role-play.

15. Create "goodbye" rituals. Create a special kiss, or provide a special pebble or key chain to put in his pants pocket, then explain that when he touches the item, it means you're thinking of him.

16. Praise your youngster for tasks or activities that she is able to do independently (e.g., household chores, playing nicely on her own or with friends, etc.). Praising your youngster for doing things independently sends the message that she is capable of doing things for herself and should feel confident without your close supervision and guidance.

17. Some kids on the spectrum feel a constant need for affection because they are not sure when or if the attention will be available. Schedule 5 to 10 minutes every day when you can provide your youngster with undivided attention (i.e., no computer, T.V., cell phones, etc.).

18. Use a consistent phrase when saying goodbye (e.g., “I’ll see you again shortly”). Be brief, don’t linger, and don’t overreact if your youngster gets upset after saying goodbye. Overreacting will only feed into his anxiety and make it worse, while lingering will increase the likelihood that he will continue to sulk or seek your attention to prolong your stay each time.

19. Occasionally, you may need to stay with your youngster during social activities. Play with her and her peers until she is comfortable playing on her own. Be available during play dates to teach and model social skills, respond to conflict, and monitor situations that may cause stress or anxiety.

20. Use social stories, drawings, and other creative approaches appropriate to your youngster’s age to explain what he is thinking and feeling when you leave him somewhere.

21. Parental anxiety feeds into your youngster’s anxiety, so curb your anxiety and watch how you react. Kids can catch our fears.

22. Time your departure carefully. Your youngster may be more likely to have a tantrum when you leave if she is tired, hungry or restless. When possible, leave when your youngster is fed and rested.

23. Recruit one of your child’s peers to support him (e.g., peer comes to your house and walks with your child to school).

24. Develop a plan for gradual separation whereby you gradually shorten the period of time you spend saying goodbye – and increase the amount of time apart.

25. Avoid over-protection and too much reassurance. Always rescuing or being overprotective robs your youngster of confidence. The key is to find the balance between pushing and protecting. 

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