How to Stop Overwhelming Your Child on the Autism Spectrum

“I have two children, one age 4 - the other age 7. Both are on the autism spectrum (high functioning). The oldest is easily overwhelmed by even the smallest of problems, most of which can result in a meltdown depending on his general mood of the day (shirt is too tight, younger brother is too pesky, poor loser playing board games, hates the shower with a passion, and on and on we go). What are some things I can say or do to save him from getting so stressed out?”

High-Functioning Autism is a developmental disorder that results in several ongoing challenges: (a) two-way social interaction, (b) verbal and nonverbal communication, (c) a reluctance to accept change, (d) inflexibility of thought, and (e) an all-absorbing narrow area of interest. Also, there is a range of severity of symptoms within the disorder (e.g., the very mildly affected youngster often goes undiagnosed and may just appear odd or eccentric).

In general, kids with High-Functioning Autism (HFA) and Asperger’s are happiest with routines and a structured environment. They love praise, winning and being first, but find losing, imperfection and criticism very difficult to take. Problem behavior often stems from an inability to communicate their frustrations and anxieties. If we, as parents, can help break through to the HFA child’s “own little world,” we can help him or her to cope a little better in day-to-day activities.

There are many things we can do to help our “special needs” children better understand the world, and in doing so, help them to feel less overwhelmed in certain situations. 

Here are a few suggestions:

1. Use turn-taking activities as much as possible, not only in games, but in other areas at home too.

2. Try to get confirmation that they understand what you are talking about (or asking). Don't rely on a stock ‘yes’ or ‘no’ that they like to answer with.

==> Crucial Research-Based Parenting Strategies for Children and Teens with High-Functioning Autism

3. HFA kids have a need to finish tasks they have started. Strategies can be developed to reduce the stress they experience at such times. Warnings that an activity is to finish in x minutes can help. With younger kids, attempts to “save” the task can help (e.g., videoing a program, mark in a book, etc.).

4. Model an “always looking for the positive” mindset. If you look for the positive in situations, so will your youngster. Kids learn behaviors from watching their parents. So, when you think about your youngster's psychological well-being, think about your own as well.

5. Promises and threats you make will have to be kept. So, try not to make them too lightly.

6. Pre-warn them of any changes, and give warning prompts if you want them to finish a task (e.g., “when you have colored that in, we are going shopping”).

7. Limit any choices to two or three items.

8. Let them know that you love them - warts and all - and that you are proud of them. It can be very easy with a youngster who acts-out behaviorally not to tell him or her all the things you feel inside.

9. Keep all your speech simple to a level they understand.

10. Model “self-care strategies.” If you take care of yourself and schedule time for your own needs, your youngster will learn that self-care is an important part of life.

11. In some kids who appear not to listen, the act of singing your words can have a beneficial effect.

12. Limit their “special interest” time to set amounts of time each day.

13. Try to build in some flexibility in their routine. If they learn early that things do change - and often without warning - it can help.

14. Don't always expect them to “act their age.” They are usually immature as compared to their same-age peer group, and you should make some allowances for this.

15. Try to identify stress-triggers and avoid them if possible. Be ready to distract with some alternative (e.g., “come and see this”).

16. Begin early to teach the difference between private and public places and actions, so that they can develop ways of coping with more complex social rules later in life.

17. Keep instructions simple. For complicated jobs, use lists or pictures.

18. Model “approach behavior.” Your HFA youngster will do what you do. So, if you avoid anxiety-provoking situations, so will he or she. If you face your fears, so will your youngster.

19. As kids on the autism spectrum mature, some problems will get easier. But, like all other kids, new problems will emerge. Social skills will have to be taught in an effort for them to find a place in the world. So, take all opportunities to explain situations time and time again.

20. Lastly, remember that kids on the spectrum are kids just like the rest. They have their own personalities, abilities, likes and dislikes. They just need extra support, patience and understanding from everyone around them.


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