The pandemic has been trying for all of us, but particularly challenging for children on the autism spectrum. For many, their routine has been completely up-ended, and necessary services have been ceased or reduced, leaving them feeling agitated, disappointed, confused, and upset. Many children have regressed over the last year. They need extra support.
There are key strategies you can employ to help autistic children–and neurotypical kids–manage their emotions and behavior during these trying times. These strategies help set up autistic children for success and learn how to cope with confusing changes.
Strategy #1 – Preview: Kids like to know what’s happening.
Predictability is reassuring. Most people do not enjoy when their plans are derailed because something unexpected has been sprung on them at the last minute. Autistic children are especially sensitive to unpredictability. They feel secure when they know what is happening and what to expect. Having a clear sense of what’s to come helps reduce the stress levels of autistic children and increases their calm behavior. Be sure to preview new activities, telling children about what is going to take place, who will be there, and how long the event will take. For example, if a child is going to grandma’s house for the first time in many months, explain the details of the event ahead of time. Discuss what to do, who’s coming, and how long you’ll stay. Describe how the child can have fun–perhaps bringing along some of her favorite items–and talk about appropriate behavior. This helps the child understand the expectations for the visit, making an uncertain event feel predictable.
Strategy #2 – Add Structure: Make a plan.
There have been so many changes over the last year that have been confusing and challenging. Making a plan helps kids feel more in control and calm. Develop an easily understandable schedule with words or pictures, and review it with the child before an event. You can even bring it with you because some kids like to check off activities as they are completed. This gives them a sense of accomplishment and shows them clearly what to expect next. Transitions from one activity to the next can be stressful, and a written schedule helps to reduce that stress by increasing predictability. Give 5 and 10 minute warnings of a change in activity, saying, for example, “We have ten minutes left to finish the game. Then, we’ll clean up and go home. ”
Strategy #3 – Practice: Kids feel more confident when they’ve tried it.
In order to decrease anxiety and promote confidence, practice for new situations ahead of time. Role-play with your child so she can know what to say and do, or practice games she can play. For example, you might go over the rules for playing a game while maintaining social distancing and try it out. Unexpected changes can also be disappointing. We can practice for such situations by saying things like, “It’s okay, maybe next time,” or “It’s just part of the game.” Children are more prepared to deal with various challenges when they’ve practiced what to do and say.
Strategy #4 – Take a Break: Just get away from it all.
Because all of these changes can be overwhelming, it’s important to make sure that autistic children always have the option to take a break. Just knowing that it’s possible to remove oneself from a stressful situation is a key coping skill. Even before you see any signs that your child is becoming overwhelmed or agitated, find a place where your child can be away from the hustle and bustle. Let him know in advance that this is his “break spot” and explain that it’s a safe place to retreat if he needs some quiet time or solitude. Having the opportunity to take a break will give your child a sense of security and help him cope with any strong emotions he may feel.
Strategy #5 – Offer choices: It’s comforting to be in control.
The challenges of the pandemic leave many children feeling like their lives are spinning out of control. There are simple ways we can help children feel more in control. Help them make choices. Children feel empowered in a situation when they are allowed to choose what to do. For example, if a child needs to move away from a situation, ask him if he wants to go sit over here, or walk over there, instead of insisting that the child do one specific thing. When a child is feeling overwhelmed, being ordered to do something feels even more distressing. But when we encourage a child to make a choice, his anxiety level decreases as he feels more control. There are many situations throughout the day where we can encourage children to make choices: what to wear, what to eat, what to play, etc.
Trying out these simple strategies can make a big difference in the lives of autistic children, helping them learn practical coping skills to deal with difficult and challenging situations.
For more information on practical strategies to help children with autism, read Right from the Start – A Practical Guide for Helping Young Children with Autism by Karin Donahue and Kate Crassons. This book is easy to read and provides essential information on helping autistic children learn self-regulation (managing emotions and behavior), social skills, and play skills, both at home and at school.