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Autism Coping Skills: Key to Reducing Overwhelm

April 28, 2022


Parents of autistic children may have thought to themselves, “What are some autism coping skills and strategies I could use with my child?” Understanding when their children have meltdowns or become triggered by some outside factor is a good starting point.

Autism Coping Skills: Key to Reducing Overwhelm https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/coping-skills-reducing-overwhelm

Knowing about coping strategies and teaching them can help support autistic children in difficult situations and alleviate stressful moments that may have typically ended in a meltdown.

There are many different types of coping skills, and there is no single approach that will work for everyone. For example, some people listen to music and walk around, while others may practice deep breathing techniques, and others get outside and enjoy nature.

The bottom line is it’s important to support our kids in finding the coping skills that work best for them as an individual.

Warning signs an autistic individual is having a hard time coping

Understanding the triggers of an individual is imperative to being able to teach coping strategies in certain situations. Knowing the best way to deal with anxious and stressful emotions can be really helpful to a person with autism.

Some stressful situations and triggers could include:

  • Difficulties in certain social situations – Social situations can be a source of anxiety and stress for the autistic individual. There are some situations, like those that are unknown and/or with someone they may not feel comfortable with, that can cause difficulties and be triggering
  • Overstimulating sensory environment – The sensory systems of some people diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder can be sensitive and when environments have loud music, unexpected and sudden sounds, bright colors, flashing lights, and anything else that could overstimulating and/or sudden and unexpected, it can cause a trigger reaction from the autistic individual
  • A feeling of being misunderstood – It is human nature to want to be accepted and understood by others. There are some behaviors associated with autism spectrum disorder that others may not understand. This can make the autistic person feel insecure, withdrawn, and unwilling to listen or talk to the individual who didn’t show understanding
  • Unexpected changes to routine and environment – Routine and knowing what to expect is helpful to some autistic people. If there is a disruption in a school schedule, or maybe a change to the classroom of an autistic child, it can cause a triggered reaction. This stress can affect the cognitive processes necessary to get through the school day, and can even affect activities and interactions outside of the incidences of unexpected change
  • Coping with different and unexpected emotions and stressful situations – When an autistic person becomes overwhelmed, it can trigger a mechanism in their brain that causes a flight or fight response. The incident may seem insignificant to those around the individual, but cause stress and different levels of anxiety for the person with autism

Examples of coping strategies for autistic people

There are many resources available with examples of calming strategies and self management skills. When deciding on what coping strategies will work best for the individual, it is important to remember specific social and emotional support the person may have, along with their skill and knowledge level.

With that said, there are numerous coping strategies to be explored and tried. Some of them include:

That is just a basic list of ideas to try out and discuss with family members, teachers, and others that may be helping the autistic individual with ideas. Communication is a key element to finding out what strategies will be helpful and the most beneficial for the person on the spectrum.

Coping strategies for autistic people explained

Music

Music is one of the creative mediums that has a range from calm and classic to fast and energetic. There is something for everyone. There are many autistic people that seem drawn to music and its therapeutic and calming properties. When coping with a stressful or uncomfortable activity, music can be what helps soothe the individual enough to get them through whatever activity is uncomfortable.

Going for a walk

There are a growing number of people finding out the many benefits there are to getting outside and walking. There are some people who are a little more active, like those diagnosed with ADHD who might need a form of activity in order to concentrate.

Going for a walk outside can be exactly what the individual needs to continue with lessons. Sometimes getting away from an overwhelming environment by walking around outside where trees and other outdoor components are expected is what the autistic child needs to finish with lessons in an overwhelming classroom.

Exercise

It is good for everyone to exercise daily. Exercise is known to help lower stress during challenging times.

Families can exercise and get healthy together, that way they are teaching this coping mechanism to the autistic person to use during stressful times in life. Enjoying exercise and having it in the arsenal of coping activities can be beneficial in body and mind for the person with autism.

Deep breathing

Sometimes frustration and overwhelm can be difficult to communicate to teachers and an autistic person’s family members. One response to this frustration can be to withhold breath and/or hyperventilate.

Knowing deep breathing techniques can help prevent someone from holding their breath or breathing too fast. It can be a calming exercise and allows for more oxygen to get to the individual’s brain, allowing them to calm down and think more clearly.

Engage in a pleasant and relaxing activity

These activities can include, but not be limited to, favorite hobbies, reading a book, drawing, or whatever brings someone joy. When things are stressful and seem overwhelming for the autistic person, knowing and engaging in something pleasant is comforting and calming.

Sensory and fidget toys

These tools and toys can be good to help those that need to fidget and move focus on the task at hand. These toys and tools can also be soothing because of the sounds, motion, feel, etc.

Fidget toys come in all shapes and sizes. There are many that are a convenient size to travel with and if it is something that is calming to the person with autism, it could be beneficial to have multiple available at home, in the car, etc. in case the person needs it.

Prayer and meditation

Whether prayer and meditation are religious or not, they are found to be calming. This can be a useful activity that doesn’t require any extra materials and can be done at home or out and about. It is a very versatile practice and can be easily taught.

Practice mindfulness

One of the best practices that can help someone realize not only how they are feeling, but why they may be feeling that way is mindfulness. It can start by parents or teachers observing the autistic child to see if there seems to be a cause to certain behaviors.

Once the parents and/or teachers recognize the activity that is causing the behavior, they can help the autistic child recognize it too. The adults can also provide the words and/or signs that could help the autistic person to express themselves.

The six different types of coping strategies

The above list offers some general suggestions but, according to Henry Ford Health’s article titled 6 Strategies for Coping with Change, there are six main coping strategies that can also be utilized:

  1. Have a plan beforehand – It is typically comforting to autistic people to have a plan and consistency. That way they know what to expect next
  2. Self regulation and knowing the signs of stress and anxiety – Self regulation and recognizing the signs of when things are stressful are beneficial skills to have. If someone knows that something could be a trigger, they can avoid it or at least be prepared for it
  3. Understanding and talking through the events of the day and reflecting – Not only does talking about the day help the autistic person recount their day, it also exercises their social skills. Another benefit is if there was a trigger that occurred and was recognized, or not, that can be noted for future events where it could happen again
  4. Develop a schedule with structure and stick to it – A schedule with structure is helpful because it provides consistency and keeps unwanted surprises at bay
  5. Create and engage in positive and calming strategies – Knowing and practicing calming coping strategies will help when and if stressful situations occur
  6. Think about something you are thankful for – Gratitude helps people feel good about what they have going on in their lives. It is a positive practice and something that helps to not only combat stress, but also depression

Why build coping skills?

There are so many reasons why parents should start building coping strategies with their autistic children. Having these strategies in place will be helpful with behavior during potential anxiety inducing and stressful situations.

Parents and teachers can help children grow by leaps and bounds if they provide support and coping strategies. Having the ability to cope with different calming strategies can help children develop better self regulation skills.


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Having an array of strategies can also prove to be helpful during social situations and stressful times. They can help improve the quality of life of the child, their family, and teachers.

Building coping skills should be part of a toolbox of skills autistic people could use to stay calm and prevent what would have otherwise become a meltdown. If a person is experiencing less stress and feeling better because they have learned how to deal with stress and anxiety in their everyday lives, this has the potential to start affecting other aspects of life in a positive way.

Is there a best way to calm someone with autism who is overwhelmed?

There are so many resources available that parents can use that can help their autistic child when they are feeling overwhelmed. It can be overwhelming for parents though to choose which resources and tools to use because there are so many.

So, what is a parent to do? The best way to start would be for the parent to remember they know their child the best. There is no harm in trying any and all the strategies that have been discussed in this article. The list doesn’t stop here, it is only a starting point.

Parents that still have questions can talk to their doctor to see where they could get support in this area.

Is there really a coping strategy that could help?

Finding the strategy that works may take some trial and error, but is worth it when the right strategy or strategies are found.

There are books and therapies available that discuss and teach coping skills. As mentioned above, parents can also talk to their child’s doctor and/or therapists to see if they can find out more about coping skills.

Occupational therapists and/or physical therapists that may already be working with the person with autism may be able to provide tips and tricks that could help coping skills be more successful. They could give parents best practice ideas to implement at home and practice with their children.

How to know if the coping skills are helping

It can be difficult seeing whether coping strategies are working for the person with autism or not at the beginning. All parents can do is continue teaching the skills and making sure to pay attention to triggers and what caused them.

Parents should ensure they know their children best when it comes to behaviors and what causes them. Once precursors to behaviors have been established, finding the strategies to alleviate and calm the effects of these stressors comes next. As mentioned above, for one person it might be listening to music that soothes them, for others it might be something else. 

Successful coping strategies depend on the individual using them, regardless of whether that person is neurotypical or neurodivergent. Caregivers should do their best to ensure autistic people know about different strategies, and if they don’t that they are being taught about them.

Final thoughts

It is important to remember that autistic children grow up to become autistic adults and the skills they learn earlier in life can benefit them later in life. Discussing any questions and bringing concerns to the autistic person’s doctor can help start the journey to providing and teaching much needed coping skills.

If a doctor is unable to answer questions and provide resources, they could have contacts that would be better equipped to answer those types of questions. The help that struggling autistic children need can start with being introduced to coping strategies, learning, and using the strategies in everyday life.

References:

https://afirm.fpg.unc.edu/prioritize-coping-and-calming-skills

https://www.autism.org.uk/advice-and-guidance/topics/mental-health/anxiety

https://www.henryford.com/blog/2017/05/coping-with-chnge

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