Calming Techniques for High-Functioning Autistic Children (ASD Level 1)

"What are some things I can do as a parent of a 6-year-old autistic son (high-functioning) to help him calm down when he has a temper tantrum (which usually results in him hurting himself or destroying something in the house)? He just started the first grade, and his teacher is already having issues with his behavior as well."

In order to understand what calming techniques will work, you will first need to determine what things excite and upset your high-functioning autistic (HFA) son, and have some understanding of the context in which he is throwing a tantrum.

1. Make sure your child knows what the expectations are, and do not confuse the issue with trying to talk to him about things at a time when he is already upset.

2. Try to redirect him to an alternative activity -- something that he enjoys. 

3. If this does not stop the tantrum, tell him to stop. Don't add any extras, just STOP -- calmly and directly.

4. If he still doesn't stop, provide some physical redirection to an area where he can calm down. It can be very effective to call this his SAFE place. It may include a bean-bag chair, where he can sit. But, eliminate any extras in the area, such as toys, or other preferred items. If he doesn't voluntarily go to his SAFE place, physically escort him there.

5. Tell him he must be calm for 5 minutes before he can get up.

This may seem like a overly simple process in order to deal with what may be a challenging behavior. The key is to be consistent, so that he will always know what is coming. If the child is in school, try to provide this program across all environments.

It is amazing how many HFA children will actually learn to go to their SAFE place independently, as a way for them to control themselves. We want them to self-monitor their behavior and show them that we believe they have the ability to calm themselves down.

There are no easy and quick fixes to reduce or eliminate severe behavioral problems (e.g., self-injury, aggressiveness, severe tantrums and destructiveness). There may be, however, a few fixes that may not require an incredible amount of time and effort to implement:

1. One possible reason for behavioral problems may be difficulties in receptive language. HFA kids often have poor auditory processing skills. As a result, they often do not understand what people are saying to them (i.e., they hear the words but they do not understand what the words mean). The child’s lack of understanding can lead to confusion and frustration, which can escalate into behavior problems. Visual communication systems can be useful in teaching and in informing kids of what is planned and what is expected of them.

2. Behavioral problems may also be due to difficulties in expressive language. In fact, many researchers feel strongly that the majority of behavioral problems are simply due to poor expressive communication skills. There are numerous communication strategies, such as the Picture Exchange Communication System and Simultaneous Communication (i.e., using speech and sign language at the same time) which can be used to teach expressive communication skills.

3. Food allergies are an often overlooked cause of behavior problems. Some kids may have red ears, red cheeks, or dark circles under their eyes. These are often signs of food allergies. The most common allergens are dairy and wheat products, food preservatives, and food coloring. Some of the symptoms associated with food allergies are headaches, tantrums, feelings of nausea or spaciness, and stomach aches. As a result, the child is less tolerant of others and he/she may be more likely to strike out at others or have a tantrum.

Since many of these kids have poor communication skills, the parent and/or teacher may not be aware that the child is not feeling well. The child should be tested if food allergies are suspected. If the child tests positive for certain foods, then these products should be eliminated from his/her diet.

4. If the child’s behavior is worse at school but not at home, there are many possible reasons, such as a lack of consistency. There are, however, several physical causes that should be considered. Two possible causes, which are seldom considered, are cleaning solvents and florescent classroom lighting. Janitors often use powerful chemicals to clean the classroom. Although the smell may be gone by the next day, the chemical residue may still be in the air and on surfaces. Breathing these chemicals may affect sensitive people. During the day, students often place their hands and face on the tables and floors, and these chemicals can eventually wind up in the child’s mouth and alter brain functioning and behavior. Many parents and teachers wipe the students’ desks with water or a natural cleaning solution prior to class each morning, and they have reported rather remarkable improvements in the students’ behaviors.

Florescent lighting, which is the most common lighting used in classrooms, may also affect behavior. Many adults with autism report that florescent lights bothered them greatly during their school years. In addition, U.C.L.A. researchers observed more repetitive, self-stimulatory behaviors under florescent lighting compared to incandescent lighting. Teachers may want to turn off the florescent lighting in their classroom for a few days to see if there is a decrease in behavioral problems for some or all of the students. During this trial period, the teacher can use natural light from the windows and/or incandescent lights.

5. In many instances, a behavior problem is a reaction to a request or demand made by a caregiver/teacher. The child may have learned that he/she can escape or avoid such situations, such as working on a task, by ‘acting up.’ A functional assessment of the child’s behavior (i.e., antecedents, consequences, context of the behavior) may reveal certain relationships between the behavior and the function the behavior serves. If avoidance is the function the behavior serves, the caregiver/teacher should follow through with all requests and demands he/she makes to the child. If the child is able to escape or avoid such situations, even only some of the time, the behavior problem will likely continue.

6. It is also important to consider the child’s level of arousal when formulating a strategy to treat behavioral problems. Sometimes behavioral problems occur when the child is overly excited. This can occur when the child is anxious and/or when there is too much stimulation in the environment. In these cases, treatment should be aimed at calming the child.

Some popular calming techniques include: vigorous exercise (e.g., a stationary bicycle) which would act as a release of their high excitement level, vestibular stimulation (e.g., slow swinging), and deep pressure (e.g., Temple Grandin’s Hug Machine). In some cases, behavioral problems may be due to a low level of arousal such as when the child is passive or bored. Behaviors such as aggression and destructiveness may be exciting, and thus appealing, to some of these kids. If one suspects behavior problems are due to underarousal, the child should be kept busy or active. Vigorous exercise is another good way to increase arousal level.

7. Many families are giving their children safe nutritional supplements, such as Vitamin B6 with magnesium and Di-methyl-glycine (DMG). Nearly half have reported a reduction in behavioral problems as well as improvements in the child’s general well-being. Sometimes powerful drugs are prescribed to autistic kids to treat their behavior. Interestingly, the most commonly prescribed drug for autistic children is Ritalin. A survey conducted by the Autism Research Institute in San Diego revealed that 45% of 2,788 parents felt that Ritalin made their child’s behavior worse and only 20% reported improvement (27% of parents of autistic children felt that Ritalin made no difference).

8. Occasionally a child may exhibit a behavior problem at school but not at home, or vice versa. For example, the parent may have already developed a strategy to stop the behavior at home, but the teacher is unaware of this strategy. It is important that the parent and teacher discuss the child’s behavioral problems since one of them may have already discovered a solution to handle the behavior.

Resources for parents of children and teens on the autism spectrum:

==> Videos for Parents of Children and Teens with ASD


•    Anonymous said... A weighted blanket. Or a calm room at school.
•    Anonymous said... At home, we started with a lycra style sensory swing. Then once he sort of brought it down a notch we started sending him to his room (most of our meltdowns were also correlated with bad behavior), in his room we have a heavy comforter, a bean bag, a DVD player with story DVDs and we recently added a lycra sheet on his bed. We set the timer based on his offense and willingness to go to his room, he usually first goes right under his bean bag then he will usually lay on the bean bag with the heavy comforter and watch a story, or read a book. At school, we had to change programs.
•    Anonymous said... change is very difficult for them,does he have a therapy aid at school?
•    Anonymous said... Failing that a tent in the corner of the classroom?
•    Anonymous said... For my son, "tantrums or meltdowns" were usually the result of some anxiety that he didn't know how to handle. Figuring out what the problem was and teaching him to deal with it was helpful but was a process. My son needed to be able to leave the classroom which was very stimulating. Sometimes the hallway or even the OT room. We found that a certain book that played music worked to calm him at home and as he got older he started using it in his own. Sometimes I would Just hold him tight. If you pay close attention you will be able to figure out what works for him. Listen to your gut and remember that no one knows and loves him like you. It was very hard for our family at that age. He is 13 now and things have gotten so much better. There is hope!
•    Anonymous said... Get the best professional help while he is a little boy.
•    Anonymous said... Most meltdowns are a result of anxiety/stress/upsets. Fix the cause (whatis upsetting the child) and the meltdowns will ease off. Significantly.
•    Anonymous said... My 7yr just finished a 10 session program with his OT called the Alert Program - How Does Your Engine Run. It was awesome and he is sooo much better now for it. It helps the kids to recognise how their body is feeling and what types of things help them to get their 'engine' running just right. I can't say enough about it - absolutely amazing!!! My son would yell, throw things, hurt kids, bang and slam furniture/doors etc. We get the occasional growl or stomping feet when he is REALLY worked up, but the majority of the time we can nip it in the bud with what we both learnt at these sessions
•    Anonymous said... My son's teachers allowed him to pick a place in the classroom that he could go to when he felt upset. It seemed like it helped a lot. One year it was under the row of "cubbies" and coat hooks. It was usually only for a few minutes, but seemed to help him. Now that he is a little older they have a resource room between the classrooms and he can sit in there until he calms himself.
•    Anonymous said... Needs a good routine at school, talk to teacher and tell her parts of your routine at home, All about routine and prompts. I always use the clock, when change occur, always a quick 10 minute reminder, AS children love knowing what's set out for them in the day, as you know they don't really like change. Sleep is another important issue. I hope this has helped you.
•    Anonymous said... Prevention.
•    Anonymous said... Rescue Remedy!!!!

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