Anxiety-Management: Tips for Parents of Children on the Autism Spectrum

Young people with High-Functioning Autism (HFA) and Asperger’s are prone to greater anxiety in their daily lives than their “typical” peers. 

Social interaction, especially with more than one person, inevitably increases anxiety to a point where the child’s coping mechanisms may deteriorate.

Situations in which he or she has to identify, translate, and respond to social and emotional cues – and cope with unexpected noise levels – often result in a meltdown. 

Parents can – and should – teach their “special needs” child traditional relaxation methods using activities to encourage muscle relaxation and breathing exercises as a counter-conditioning technique. But, parents must also consider the circumstances in which their child is particularly prone to anxiety.

Environmental modification can significantly reduce anxiety in kids on the autism spectrum (e.g., having a safe area for periods of solitude to relax or concentrate on schoolwork, minimizing distractions, reducing noise levels, etc.). If the parent recognizes that a particular event is a major cause of anxiety, then it would be helpful to consider whether the source could be avoided (e.g., recommending the temporary suspension of homework).

At school, one option for the HFA youngster who becomes anxious on the playground is to be able to withdraw to the school library, or for the child who is stressed about socializing during the lunch break, to complete a crossword puzzle in a quiet area.

Another source of anxiety for kids on the spectrum is unexpected changes. Thus, they often need advance preparation and time to adjust to the new task or activity.

Cue-controlled relaxation is another useful part of an anxiety-management plan. One strategy is for the child to have an object in his or her pocket that symbolizes (or has been classically conditioned to) elicit feelings of relaxation.

For instance, one girl with HFA was a passionate reader of fiction, her favorite book being The Secret Garden. She kept a key in her pocket to symbolically open the door to the secret garden, a make-believe place where she felt calm and joyful. A couple minutes touching or looking at the key helped her to visualize a scene mentioned in the book and to calm down and reach a more confident state of mind.

Another example was a boy on the autism spectrum who had a special picture in his backpack of a beach scene, which reminded him of the time his family vacationed in Florida and he collected seashells found in the sand. He viewed the picture frequently whenever he was in the throes of a stressful event.

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