Supporting ourselves and one another during this global pandemic is unprecedented territory for most of us. But for autism families, the ability to adapt to the changes a quarantine brings can be extra challenging. Many individuals with autism already struggle to manage and regulate their emotions. How do we support them through this time?
First and foremost, we must take care of ourselves because children’s emotions and behavior often mirror our own. We also must allow children to express themselves whatever way works best for them; we listen, provide empathy and support, and we realize that during stressful times we may see more dysregulation and behavioral challenges.
Here are some tools to help you support emotional regulation during this difficult time and uncharted territory.
Take care of yourself
Just like the coronavirus, our emotions are contagious. The technical term is referred to as emotional contagion, and it means that one person’s emotions can directly trigger another person to experience similar emotions. That’s why it is so important for caregivers to take care of themselves and use strategies to deal with the fear, stress, and uncertainty we are all feeling right now. Some strategies that you may find helpful are to limit access to the news and social media, engage in focus time, and concentrate on what you can control.
We are constantly bombarded with information, most of which at this time is negative. This type of news and information directly impacts our wellbeing. According to happiness researchers, Shawn Achor and Michelle Gielan, three minutes of negative news in the morning makes you 27 percent more likely to be unhappy six to eight hours later. Limiting our access to the news and social media is such a difficult thing to do at this time.
We all want to stay informed, especially when changes are occurring so quickly. However, for your wellbeing as well as your child’s, take periodic time outs from checking the news and social media. Also, set small goals for yourself to be away from having all the information available at your fingertips. In addition, you may find it helpful to go to the Good News Network and register to receive an email each morning containing positive news.
Try to find time to engage in an activity that requires focus, whether it is a project with your child/family member, cleaning, or work-related. Dr. Dan Siegel and Dr. David Rock refer to this as focus time—a time when you are concentrating on something in a goal-oriented way. Focus time is one of seven daily essential mental activities that help optimize the brain and create wellbeing. For more information on the seven daily essential mental activities, check out Dr. Dan Siegel and Dr. David Rock’s Healthy Mind Platter.
Lastly, focus on what you have control over versus what you cannot control right now, such as boosting your immunity by getting adequate sleep, eating a well-balanced diet, and taking supplements.
Keeping your family safe by staying home, cleaning surfaces frequently, washing hands, and sanitizing items brought in from outside can help you maintain a sense of control during a time when so many things are outside of our control. By taking care of yourself and regulating your emotions during this time, you can help your child feel calm, safe, and secure.
Allow your child to express thoughts and emotions:
Dr. Dan Siegel and Dr. Tina Payne Bryson coined the term Name It to Tame It. By simply naming our emotions, we can tame them and help ourselves calm down. Even if your child cannot name his/her emotions on his/her own, by simply modeling or labeling the feelings for him/her, you can help your child calm down. This may sound like:
- “You seem really frustrated that we cannot go to the store right now.”
- “You seem really disappointed that we can’t go to the class we usually go to.”
- “You seem worried.”
Some individuals with autism may need visual supports to help them share their emotions. Providing visual cues such as sentence stems and talk bubbles can support them by taking advantage of their visual processing strength. Furthermore, building in predictable check-ins may be supportive, such as daily journaling with sentence completion tasks (i.e., Today I feel…).
If you prefer to buy journals, the following may be helpful:
- The 3 Minute Gratitude Journal for Kids: A Journal To Teach Children to Practice Gratitude and Mindfulness by Modern Kid Press
- Gratitude Journal for Kids by Michelia Creations
- My Emotions Journal Log Book For Kids & Teens by Lily’s Journal
- How Do you Feel Today? My First Awesome Mood Journal by Little North
A previous student who regularly went to Goodwill with his grandmother to shop for VHS tapes expressed his frustration about social distancing by writing a letter to President Donald Trump. For individuals with autism that use more unconventional means to communicate, as a parent, you may see an increase in challenging behaviors as they may use behaviors to express their disappointment, frustration, or fear.
Become a detective to try and determine what your child may be expressing to you through behaviors. Name the emotions for your child, use an alternative communication device to model labeling his/her emotion, or use with visual cues to label emotions. We all feel better when we are able to share our thoughts about a frustrating or fearful situation with others. Now more than ever, we need to rely on each other and feel safe enough to express ourselves openly to the ones we love.
Active listening, empathy, and support
Empathy provides connection and helps calm our nervous system. It’s easy during times like this to attempt to dismiss feelings or distract children away from their feelings. When we do this to others, it makes them more determined to prove their emotion to you, which can lead to more dysregulation and behavioral challenges. Here’s a helpful chart depicting what empathy looks and sounds like.
Some specific examples of empathetic statements include:
- “It’s super disappointing when we can’t do what we want.”
- “I know this is really frustrating.”
- “I’m noticing that you are looking really sad. How can I help you?”
Dysregulation and Behavioral Challenges
Neuroception is our brain’s constant evaluation of safety in our environment. This is done at a subconscious level. During times like this, many of us do not feel safe. This will cause our brain to be on alert for danger more often. It causes many of us to be in a constant state of hypervigilance.
In response to this, your child may externalize his/her feelings of threat by acting disruptive, aggressive, or both. Others may internalize their feelings of threat and fear by shutting down and refusing to do things. When brains are in a fear state, survival is the focus, making communication, problem-solving, comprehending, and social engagement much more difficult. Understanding this will be essential for families right now.
Punishment will not help our children feel safe. If you begin to see more dysregulation and behavioral challenges, it may be a sign that your child is struggling with a sense of safety right now, as all of us are. We find safety in relationships. Focus on providing connections and support to your child. This will be much more successful at decreasing behavioral struggles than providing punishment and consequences for their behavior.
I’m hopeful these suggestions and tools help give you strategies to employ during this uncertain and ever-changing time. Be safe, healthy, and give yourself grace; none of us have experienced this before, and we are all doing the best that we can.
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Consuming Negative News Can Make You Less Effective at Work. (2015). Retrieved 23 March 2020, from https://hbr.org/2015/09/consuming-negative-news-can-make-you-less-effective-at-work.
Dr. Dan Siegel – Resources – Healthy Mind Platter. Drdansiegel.com. (2020). Retrieved 23 March 2020, from https://edubirdie.com/blog/healthy_mind_platter.
The Good News Network: Positive Stories 24/7. Good News Network. (2020). Retrieved 23 March 2020, from https://www.goodnewsnetwork.org/.
Payne Bryson, T., & Siegel, D. (2011). The Whole Brain Child (1st ed.). Random House, LLC.
Siegel, D., & Payne-Bryson, T. (2016). No Drama Discipline Workbook: Exercises, Activities, and Practical Strategies to Calm the Chaos and Nurture Developing Minds. PESI Publishing.
Cohen, L. (2013). The Opposite of Worry: The Playful Parenting Approach to Childhood Anxieties and Fears (1st ed.). Ballantine Books.
Delahooke, M. (2019). Beyond Behaviors: Using Brain Science and Compassion to Understand and Solve Children’s Behavioral Challenges (1st ed.). PESI Publishing.
If you found this article helpful, please consider sharing it on social media or linking to it from your website to help other parents. You may also want to check out our other resources on coping strategies for autism and COVID-19.