Eight Ways to Calm Autism-related Anxiety

By Ronna Mandel

Professionals say a little anxiety now and then is natural, and even good for us. But anxiety that interferes with daily life – as it does for some children who have special needs or are on the autism spectrum – is not. Here are a few tried-and-true techniques for calming feelings of anxiety in children with autism.

Be prepared.

special needs - kelly wood yoga

Kelly Wood, creator of the Hi Yoga program for kids, also founded the SCHOOL Kids Yoga & Mindfulness Program, which offers yoga classes for children and professional development for public school teachers. PHOTO COURTESY JOSHUA WOOD

A big part of stress reduction is planning for stressful situations, so that your child has tools to use when they occur, according to clinical psychologist Patricia Engert, Ph.D. “The first step for parents is to establish a routine for your child if he’s sensitive to changes and might worry,” says Engert, who specializes in working with children and adolescents and practices in South Pasadena. Provide a safe and predictable environment, minimize transitions and prepare your child in advance for special activities, altered schedules, and even the smallest changes in routine. “Even exposing your child to a new teacher or activity beforehand helps prevent excessive worrying,” Engert says.

Try a reality check.

Help your child understand what “calm” feels like, and have a realistic view of the causes of their anxiety. If your child is upset, telling her to “calm down” might not make any sense without a frame of reference. “Catch a child relaxed so they understand when we use this terminology,” says Laurie Stephens, Ph.D., director of clinical services at Education Spectrum, an Altadena-based service provider.

special needs - fidgets

A variety of homemade and commercially available fidgets are available to help distract kids from anxious thoughts. PHOTO COURTESY JENNIFER JONES

At the UCLA Center for Autism Research and Treatment, therapists teach children a Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) technique using the acronym KICK, according to Treatment of Anxiety in Autism Spectrum Disorder Program Coordinator Sami Klebanoff.

K: Knowing how I’m feeling (helps children recognize emotions)

I: Icky or irritating thoughts (recognizing negative thoughts)

C: Calm thoughts (finding positive thoughts to counter those negative thoughts)

K: Keep practicing these first three steps (in increasingly difficult situations)

KICK’s goal is to get that anxiety to a tolerable level that allows children to function.

Take a deep breath.

Engert teaches children to breathe slowly in through their noses, as though they’re smelling flowers or warm cookies, and out through their mouths as though they’re blowing out birthday candles. The slow, deep breathing helps kids become “quiet on the outside,” getting their bodies in a relaxed state, like a wet spaghetti noodle. This also means quieting their vocal cords. The goal is to also help them become “quiet on the inside,” and imagine they are somewhere they feel safe, comfortable and relaxed, such as on the beach, in a beanbag chair or in their bedroom. “The key is that it’s somewhere they’re comfortable,” Engert says. “Imagine the scene. What does it look like? What does it feel like? What does it sound like? What does it smell like?”

Stephens recommends the “Lazy 8” breathing method. Children learn to visualize a figure 8 on its side, then trace the 8 with their finger in the air, breathing in through the nose while tracing the first loop, pausing at the center, then breathing out through the mouth while tracing the second loop. “The deep breathing works by slowing down the heart rate and sending calming chemicals to the brain,” says Stephens. “While focusing on your breathing, it’s very difficult to also hold negative thoughts in your head.”

Work out those worries.

special needs Melissa Music

Melissa St. John is owner and founder of Meli Music, a private music therapy company that provides services around the greater Los Angeles area. PHOTO COURTESY JOSH ROMINE

Finding a form of exercise that fits your child’s abilities and interests can provide a calming experience or an outlet for excessive energy.

Some children with autism, or those with sensory systems that aren’t giving them adequate information, enjoy the feel of water. “Water has a very calming effect, especially warmer water,” says Alethea Crespo, director of therapy programs at the Rose Bowl Aquatics Center.

Or play could be more active. Sue Trautman, co-owner of the Center for Developing Kids in Pasadena, recommends purposeful play such as kicking around a ball. Or, says Crespo, a parent could pretend-joust with their Star Wars lightsaber-wielding child. While a child runs around shouting “I’m Luke Skywalker!” they’re improving their agility and getting exercise in a fun, child-directed activity.

Get grounded with yoga.

Yoga and meditation can help settle a child’s nervous system. “Starting yoga with simple, seated poses helps kids feel in control and grounded,” says Los Feliz-based teacher Kelly Wood, creator of the Hi Yoga program for kids. Wood recommends that kids begin around age 4 or 5, and practice regularly. “Consistency is key when learning yoga,” she says.

Wood also teaches four to five different meditations to children, including positive affirmations and specific hand/finger movements. “Meditation is important and quite effective for mental and emotional balancing,” she says. “Meditation has the ability to reduce charged feelings and impulsivity. By bringing more regulation to the breath while sitting in Easy Pose [on the floor with legs crossed], the stress hormones begin to quiet down,” says Wood.

Busy the fingers to quiet the mind.

Fidget toys can distract a child from anxious thoughts and refocus the mind onto something calming. Monica Gomez, social skills coordinator at Frostig School in Pasadena, keeps a boxful of fidgets for her students, some of whom have social or academic anxiety. “These are just one tool we use to help navigate that,” she says.

It might take some trial and error to determine which sensations – pulling/squeezing, rubbing/touching or chewing – are most calming for your child, and which objects are the best fit. But there are lots of choices, many inexpensive. “Sometimes a piece of ribbon to keep in your pocket, a piece of velcro under the desk or a balloon filled with flour are all you need,” says occupational therapist Jennifer Jones, who works with Troutman at the Center for Developing Kids. Some kids like chewable jewelry. Other fidget ideas include small Slinkys, stress balls, small rubbery toys and Silly Putty.

Sing a song.

Special Needs Maddie

Maddie Chan cuddles with her dog, Teddy. Her mom, Edna Chan, says Maddie is less anxious when Teddy is around. PHOTO COURTESY EDNA CHAN

Neurologic music therapist Melissa St. John, founder of Sun Valley-based Meli Music, says music therapy can affect the brain in ways that no other strategy can. “If the ultimate goal is to help a child calm down, your best bet might be to play some quiet classical music, while helping engage their body with gentle rhythmic rocking or swaying,” she says.

Or try “toning,” replacing the words of a song with a vowel sound or humming. “Removing the lyrics within a live music environment supports the regulatory/calming effect. Most of us have used this technique before, without even knowing it,” says St. John.

Cuddle with furry friends.

Glendale mom Edna Chan had seen service and therapy dogs reduce anxiety and distress in her work with veterans with post-traumatic stress. As a young child, Chan’s teenage daughter, Maddie, showed an interest in and affection for animals, yet was often afraid of them. Maddie has ASD-related anxiety. “Over the years, she became increasingly less fearful as she interacted with family members and friends who owned pets,” says Chan. “Two years ago, we unexpectedly became the owners of a small, Maltese-mix dog. I’ve noticed that she becomes less anxious around our dog, Teddy.”

If your child is experiencing undue anxiety, give some of these strategies a try. But don’t stress out – or let your child stress out – if they aren’t working right away. “It’s hard for kids to see the little steps they are making along the way, so a parent may have to help point them out so kids can begin learning how to do it themselves,” says Stephens. “It’s like helping kids think of a staircase and how you can’t jump to the top. You have to take one step at a time.”

Ronna Mandel is a mom of two and frequent contributor to L.A. Parent.

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