Anxiety Strategies for Kids with ASD

Monday, May 13 2019

It can be really difficult to see your child experiencing such high levels of anxiety in various situations. It is important to trial different strategies to see what works best for your child.

Article Anxiety Strategies

It’s normal for children to experience periods of anxiety throughout childhood. Anxiety is a normal response to a perceived threat, and helps to keep us safe in the event of danger. For children on the Autism Spectrum, the world can be an unpredictable and overwhelming place. This can be due to difficulties in understanding social situations, using and understanding language, and difficulties with tolerating different sensations. When children are feeling anxious we often tend to see a change in their behaviour. Some of these changes include:

  • An increase in self-stimulatory behaviour (SSB), such as lining up items or repeating words/sentences,
  • An increase in meltdowns and/or challenging behaviours such as biting or head banging,
  • Difficulty sleeping,
  • Difficulty tolerating situations that they usually don’t display difficulties with,
  • Withdrawing from social situations, and/or
  • Difficulty leaving Mum or Dad’s side.

It can be really difficult to see your child experiencing such high levels of anxiety in various situations. While we can’t control every environment or situation, there are strategies we can put in place to help minimise our kids’ anxiety. While one strategy may work for one child, it may not work with another. It’s important to trial different strategies to see what works best for your child.

Routines. Building a consistent routine each day can help to create predictability and reassurance for your child during the week. One way you can do this is through the use of a daily or weekly visual schedule. Use pictures and/or words to show your child what they have on that day/each day of the week, and refer to the schedule regularly to keep them informed. If there is a change in routine, a visual schedule can be an effective way to help explain and prepare your child for the change.

Social Stories. Social stories can help to provide your child with information before a situation occurs to help prepare them as much as possible. For example if your child is starting at a new kinder, a social story including pictures may help your child to become familiar with the new environment and teachers before they start.

Pre-Warnings. Verbal or visual warnings can help your child to understand what is coming up next and give them time to prepare. Examples include telling your child they have 2 more minutes before they have to put their shoes on, or showing your child a picture of the new indoor play centre you are about to visit.

Stay calm. Children are often more observant than we give them credit for! As difficult as it is, try to stay as calm as possible in anxiety-provoking situations. This helps to model to your child that everything is okay, and helps them to feel secure when they are feeling anxious.

Relaxation strategies. If developmentally appropriate, help your child to learn different relaxation strategies they can use when they are feeling anxious. Examples include taking deep breaths, giving Mum or Dad a big hug, going to a quiet corner, playing with a favourite toy or jumping on the trampoline. Practice using strategies together when your child is feeling calm before using these when feeling anxious.

Reinforcement. Provide positive reinforcement when your child gives something a go or tries something new to help shape the behaviour.

Practice! Whenever possible, practice and prepare your child for new or anxiety-provoking situations at home. For example, if your child is anxious about going on an excursion to a farm with kinder, you could show them photos of where they are going and/or who is going with them, you could have a conversation about what the day will involve, you could practice going on a bus together or you could even visit the farm before the excursion to help ease anxiety.

Remember that it’s normal for all children to suffer from anxiety at times. However if you are having difficulty with implementing strategies and/or feel that your child’s anxiety is not reducing over time, we recommend speaking to a trained professional such as your ABA Program Supervisor, Psychologist, Paediatrician and/or GP.

Written by Samantha Boyle, a Psychologist and Clinical Supervisor with Learning For Life