Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) behave in much the same way as children without ASD when it comes to stressful situations. One key difference is that stressful situations (even those that may not seem stressful to you) tend to elicit a heightened reaction in children with ASD. Here are some techniques that may help your child with autism handle these types of situations more effectively:
- Break down complex tasks. Tasks that have many different parts to them may seem daunting to a child with ASD. However, this can be easily fixed by breaking down large tasks into smaller pieces. Smaller tasks are simpler to complete, and your child may have no problem completing each one, even though the outcome of the tasks is the same as one larger, more complex one. For example, telling your child to get dressed might be overwhelming for them, but breaking it down may make it much easier. Telling your child to put on their underwear is a simple task that they may be able to complete with no issue. Then, tell them to put on their pants. Then, their shirt. Your child may be able to complete each of these small tasks very quickly and without becoming overwhelmed, and the outcome (getting dressed) is the same as it would have been without breaking it down, but with much less stress.
- Use ‘first-then’ statements. Sometimes even small tasks can be too much for a child with autism to handle. They don’t know how many tasks there are going to be before they are done, and that can be stressful. To help counter this, it is often helpful to use ‘first-then’ statements. You can do this by saying, “First, we have to get dressed; then, we can go eat breakfast.” This simple rewording can help your child to know what they have to do in order to get the next thing, like breakfast.
- Adjust sensory levels. Even making minor changes in your child’s environment can help to reduce their stress. Dimming lights in their bedroom, turning off TVs and other noise-making electronics, and using non-scented cleaners can all help to reduce your child’s sensory input, which may in turn reduce their stress and help them to better focus on the task at hand. If your child is especially sensitive to sounds, noise cancelling headphones may be a good option to try.
- Create structure. Creating some sort of structured setting in the home can help your child know what to expect next. The simple fact of not knowing what is going to happen during their day may be worrying to them. Creating a schedule of their day, and including meal times, free times, work times, and when they need to wake up and go to sleep, can help to provide them with comfort.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, but I hope that utilizing some of these options can help your child to feel calmer throughout their day.
AJ Polek is the assistant behavioral specialist for the Child and Adolescent Neuropsychiatric Unit at Sheppard Pratt's Towson campus. He graduated from Salisbury University in 2015 with a bachelor's degree in psychology, and intends to pursue his master's degree in ABA therapy.