How do you handle high anxiety of a child on the spectrum? My son is 12 years old and where we live there is a hurricane coming soon. Everyone is talking about it and he is terrified. He gets upset when it rains and he cries because he’s scared. With others he appears angry and asks the same questions over and over about the hurricane. He is obsessing about this storm! I assured him I would make sure he is safe and even told him we can drive away when the storm comes, but he is still upset. I just wanted to know if there are any other ways to help him.
I’m so glad you asked this question. Perseveration (repeating the same thing over and over) is a VERY common issue among the autism community. Often, children with autism perseverate on stressors as a way of coping with their overwhelming anxiety. It may be continuously talking about the stressor, researching the stressor, or even acting out the stressor. In your son’s case it sounds like asking people about the storm is his way of attempting to cope. Here are a few things I would suggest…
- Validate his emotions. Put words to his emotions. Ask him how he feels or you can label it for him, “I can see that you feel scared,” “I know you’re afraid,” or “You seem very nervous.”
- Since you’ve already assured him you will protect him from the storm, limit reminding him to once per day. He will likely carry on and seek further reassurance, but you don’t want to reinforce this repetitive conversation. Tell him once, “Remember what I told you, we will drive away when the storm comes. You will be safe.” Or you can even have him repeat back to you what you’ve already told him. For example, “We talked about this yesterday. Do you remember what I told you? What will we do when the storm comes?” Once he recites back to you what the plan is you can confirm what he has said and then move on. No further conversation about it; not even telling him “We already talked about that,” or “Yes, you’re right. We will drive away.” Redirect all further discussion of the storm.
- Give him an alternative way to cope such as a social story. You can simply write out a short story that details some information about the storm, what to do when it comes, how to feel when it comes, how to handle those feelings, etc. It may have pages such as: “Where we live there are lots of storms. Some hurricanes we have had are _____. When we have hurricanes the weather gets windy, rainy, and there is thunder. Thinking of the storm can be scary. It’s okay to feel scared. When I feel scared I can tell somebody, like my mom. My mom has told me that she will protect me from the hurricane. If the weather gets really bad we will drive away from the storm and come back once it’s over. This will keep me safe.” Remind him to read his story when he gets stuck on perseverating on the storm.
It can be difficult to soothe an overly-anxious child, but hopefully these tips help to reduce some of the obsessive worrying. Stay safe!
Angelina M. works as a Board Certified Behavior Analyst, specializing in assessing and treating children and adolescents with autism, down-syndrome, and other developmental delays. She began her career in Applied Behavior Analysis in 2006, following her youngest brother’s autism diagnosis, and has since worked with dozens of children and families. She also writes a blog about her experiences as both a professional and a big sister. Her brother, Dylan, remains her most powerful inspiration for helping others who face similar challenges.
This article was featured in Issue 41 – Issue 41 – Celebrating Family