I am a child psychologist who specialises in autism – and it runs in my family too.
I understand that parenting an autistic child can be challenging, especially when it comes to helping them manage their emotions and sensory experiences.
Autism meltdowns and outbursts can be overwhelming for parents and family members, but there are many calming strategies that can help.
In my clinical experience the autism calming strategies I describe in this article are the most important and successful ones to hone for parents of autistic children.
First let’s understand the possible causes of heightened emotions in your autistic child.
Sensory Overload and Autism
Sensory overload can be a major trigger for an autistic meltdown. Sensory overload is when someone’s senses are overwhelmed by too much stimulation.
It can be caused by loud noises, bright lights, or strong smells.
It can result in anxiety, discomfort, or even physical pain.
Sensory toys can be helpful for managing sensory meltdowns, both in prevention and calming. Fidget toys, a squeeze ball or stress ball, and sensory bins can provide physical contact and sensory stimulation that can help regulate the proprioceptive sensory system.
Providing a safe space, such as a calming corner with a soft blanket or weighted blanket, can also help your child feel safe and supported during moments of distress.
Sensory Overload Vs Sensory Processing Disorder in Autism
Sensory overload and sensory processing disorder (SPD) both relate to how children perceive and handle sensory information, but they’re not the same thing.
Sensory overload occurs when a child (or even an adult) is temporarily overwhelmed by excessive sensory input, like a loud environment or bright lights.
On the other hand, SPD is a neurological disorder where the brain struggles to process sensory signals and gets overwhelmed regularly. Children with SPD may consistently over-respond to certain stimuli, like finding clothing textures unbearable. They may also under-respond, such as not noticing extreme temperatures.
While sensory overload is a situational experience everyone might face, SPD is a chronic condition that often benefits from interventions like occupational therapy.
Cognitive Rigidity in Autism: What Is It And Why Do Calming Strategies Help?
Cognitive rigidity in autism means the brain’s difficulty shifting attention, adapting to changes, and being flexible.
Emotional regulation requires cognitive flexibility, such as recognizing and adjusting to social cues.
If you’re the parent of a child who is autistic you probably recognise this pattern.
Just a little side note here: remember that all autistic features have positives as well as down sides. Cognitive rigidity can be an advantage in some situations. Read all about it in my article on celebrating autism strengths.
Changes in Routine & Autism Calming Strategies
Changes in routine can be particularly challenging for autistic children. They often thrive on predictability, consistency, and structure, and even a small alteration in daily activities can be disruptive and cause distress.
For instance, a surprise visit to the shop or an unexpected school staff absence can cause confusion, anxiety, and overwhelm.
It’s important that we understand the significant role routine plays in providing a sense of security for our children.
Routines can help autistic children make sense of the world. They may struggle to adapt to unexpected changes because they find it hard to anticipate and understand what comes next.
Social Challenges and Autism Calming Strategies
Autistic children tend to experience unique social challenges when compared with neurotypical children.
Group interactions can be more challenging than one-on-one conversations. The dynamics of multiple participants can be overwhelming. Sensory overwhelm often accompanies these social settings. This can make social situations draining for autistic children.
Misunderstandings can also arise from autistic children misreading social cues. These misinterpretations can lead to misunderstandings and sometimes conflict, which can contribute to frustration. Paired with difficulty in expressing emotions, emotional regulation in these situations can be really hard.
This highlights how intertwined social difficulties and emotional regulation challenges are for autistic children.
Difficulty Expressing Emotions or Communicating Needs
Autistic children often process information and emotions differently from their neurotypical peers. Neurological differences can make identifying and articulating emotions challenging for them.
Even if your child has a great vocabulary and can generally communicate what they need, they might struggle with abstract emotional concepts, making emotional expression difficult.
Even if they recognize an emotion or need, translating that internal experience into words or actions can be daunting.
Also, some children might use repetitive behaviors or scripts, which can be misinterpreted by people who are unfamiliar with their unique communication style.
Managing all this complexity can understandably cause strong emotion for your child. Yet another reason why they require a range of autism calming strategies in their repertoire that they can draw from when needed.
TAKE THE QUIZ!
Essential Autism Calming Strategies
1. Contain (Co-Regulate) Your Child’s Emotions
When a child is in a heightened emotional state, you need to act as a “container” for their emotions.
There is no point telling a child to calm down, because they can’t.
Their brain development hasn’t yet reached a stage where than can inhibit strong emotions.
For that reason, when your child is in the middle of a meltdown or emotional outburst, it is important to remain calm yourself.
This is the most important strategy of all.
It also might be the hardest, especially if your child is “pushing your buttons” or when outbursts happen in public places.
When you are calm you can put your own needs aside and focus on your child’s immediate needs in the current situation.
They will have difficulty expressing their needs once they are in a heightened state of emotion, so you need to have a plan in advance which takes into account what they feel helps them, to get the desired outcome (a calm child who is coping well).
Consider equipment that might help such as fiddle toys – also known as stim toys – which can have a calming and regulating effect. They are a fantastic tool because they can generally be used almost anywhere.
2. Autism Calming Strategies: Prevention
I know, prevention isn’t exactly a calming strategy in itself, but it’s vital.
If you can prevent 50% of emotional outbursts and meltdowns by avoiding potential triggers, you’ll be in a much better place to manage the remaining emotions and behaviours successfully.
You’ll be more in control.
What are your child’s early signs of distress?
Perhaps they put their hands over their ears? Perhaps they start rocking?
Let’s look at an example.
Imagine that your child finds going to the shops a stressful experience and tends to have an intense response. The busy environment and bright lights overwhelm their sensory system.
In this case, prevention involves planning your shopping trip in a sensory-friendly way, as much as you possibly can. For example, can you go to shopping at a quiet time? Can you take a break half way through to get a drink in a quiet cafe? This is a good way for children to decompress from overwhelming experiences.
3. Predictability and Autism Calming Strategies
Make predictability a part of your everyday life as much as possible, so your child’s brain doesn’t have more change to deal with than it can manage.
Try to do your standard tasks like homework at particular times on a daily basis, and use visual prompts or visual cards to cement these routines if possible.
Predictability can be incredibly soothing and calming. Your child’s brain is expecting a particular activity at a certain time. When it happens at the right time, they feel that everything is right with the world.
Thriving on predictability can be harnessed as one of your child’s strengths.
Predictability is also important in moments when you need to implement calming strategies. Your autism calming strategies need to be predictable.
For example, when your child gets home from school and feels overwhelmed and emotional, perhaps a five-minute deep-pressure calming back rub each day can become a helpful habit.
4. Calming Routines in Autism
Calming routines involve pre-planned tried and tested sensory activities that you know will successfully calm your child down.
In stressful situations young people need reliable, tried and tested calm down techniques that will slow their heart rate and help them recover. This is often a series of strategies done in a particular order, gradually inducing calm.
- Get myself to a quiet place.
- Apply deep pressure to my hands.
- Use circles to massage my temples and then the rest of my face.
- Take 5 slow, deep breaths.
- Roll my therapeutic putty in my hands until I feel okay again.
The calming routine is going to be different for every child and will take some trial and error. It may need adaptations depending on where they are e.g. home, school or out and about.
For younger children and some teens, you will need to provide a lot of input to start with.
For example, reminding your child to take each step, perhaps doing the steps with them, and communicating with school about how they can facilitate the calming routine when needed.
As your child’s calm down techniques become more and more ingrained with repetition, they will become habit and you will be able to take a step back.
5. Autism Calming Strategies: The Importance of a Safe Place (Home and School)
When you’re having a hard time, do you ever seek out a quiet, safe place to curl up and recover?
Eventually, your sensory system comes back into balance and you feel yourself again.
For your child, their calm place could be a calm down corner at home, or perhaps a sensory room at school. The safe area at school should contain resources for autistic kids to use freely.
For example, the calming place may be a sensory bin equipped with different things to choose from that match your child’s sensory preferences.
There may also be calming equipment to use such as a rocking chair, hammock or swing. Heavy work activities can be very soothing.
The calming area needs to be a place where your child’s behavior can be free and uninterrupted, doing whatever it takes to calm themselves down.
6. Physical Activity as Part of Your Autism Calming Strategy
Daily physical activity, such as rocking in a chair or engaging in repetitive movements, can help release tension and provide a sense of comfort.
Mindfulness practice and progressive muscle relaxation exercises can also be incorporated into calming routines.
Loud noises and bright lights can be overwhelming for autistic individuals, so creating a calm environment with soft lighting and minimal noise can be very important.
7. Autism Calming Strategies: The Vital Importance of Breathing
One important way to help your child calm down is to encourage slow, deep breathing.
Taking deep breaths can help children regulate their emotions and calm down quicker, for example in the middle of a meltdown. It can also help prevent a panic attack or meltdown.
Breathing is more than just an automatic function; it’s a powerful tool that can influence your child’s emotional state. Proper deep breathing can actually send signals to the brain to relax, reducing stress and inducing a calming effect.
Now, let’s get into the steps for effective slow, deep breathing:
Step 1: Find a Quiet Space. Guide your child to a quieter space where they won’t be overwhelmed by sensory inputs. This can make it easier for them to focus on their breathing.
Step 2: Adopt a Comfortable Position. Your child can sit or lie down, whatever feels more natural. The key is to make sure their posture allows for deep abdominal breathing.
Step 3: Hand on Heart, Hand on Stomach. Place one hand on the heart and one hand on the stomach. This tactile cue helps children become aware of their breathing and how it impacts different parts of their body.
Step 4: Inhale Deeply Through the Nose. Instruct your child to take a deep breath in through their nose, ideally for around 5 seconds. Encourage them to feel their stomach rise as they fill their lungs with air.
Step 5: Hold and Exhale. Hold the breath for a moment before exhaling fully through the mouth, again aiming for 5 seconds. As they exhale, they should feel their stomach fall.
Step 6: Repeat. Encourage your child to repeat this cycle at least five times, or until they start to feel more relaxed.
Calming Strategies for Autistic Children: Case Study (Saffron)
Saffron is a bright autistic 9-year-old who loves painting and being outdoors. Saffron experiences frequent emotional meltdowns, especially when her routine is disrupted.
Her parents, Sarah and John, have been actively working on autism calming strategies to better support her.
Strategy 1: Containing Emotions
Sarah and John learned the importance of keeping their own emotions in check when Saffron is distressed.
They found that fiddle toys help Saffron concentrate on her sensory experience, shifting her focus away from emotional overwhelm. These toys are small enough to be portable, so they accompany Saffron on outings.
Strategy 2: Prevention
To minimize triggers, Sarah and John noted Saffron’s early signs of distress, like hand-flapping and humming.
They started planning grocery shopping trips during quieter hours and found a nearby cafe where they could take breaks, helping Saffron decompress and manage sensory overload.
Strategy 3: Predictability
The family maintains a consistent daily routine, highlighted by visual cards displayed in Saffron’s room. These cards help cement activities like homework and art time, providing Saffron with a comforting predictability.
Strategy 4: Calming Routines
When Saffron feels overwhelmed, she knows to head to her designated ‘calm corner,’ stocked with sensory items like therapeutic putty. Her calming routine includes steps such as applying deep pressure to her hands, facial massages, and slow, deep breaths.
Strategy 5: Safe Places
Saffron has a ‘calm down corner’ at home filled with sensory items she loves. Her school also provides a sensory-friendly space where she can go when feeling overwhelmed, featuring tools like rocking chairs and swings.
Strategy 6: Physical Activity
Daily physical activities like trampoline sessions or nature walks are part of Saffron’s routine. These activities help her release pent-up energy and stress, acting as natural calmers.
Strategy 7: Importance of Breathing
Sarah and John teach Saffron the steps for effective slow, deep breathing. Whenever she feels overwhelmed, they guide her through inhaling deeply through the nose, holding the breath, and exhaling, which usually helps her regain emotional balance.
Saffron’s parents continually adapt these strategies as she grows, ensuring they meet her evolving needs.
Over time, these methods have reduced the frequency of Saffron’s emotional outbursts and improved her ability to cope with changes and stressors.
Dr Lucy Russell is a UK clinical psychologist who works with children and families. Her work involves both therapeutic support and autism assessments. She is the Clinical Director of Everlief Child Psychology, and also worked in the National Health Service for many years. In 2019 Lucy launched They Are The Future, a support website for parents of school-aged children.
Through TATF Lucy is passionate about giving practical, manageable strategies to parents and children who may otherwise struggle to find the support they need.
Lucy is a mum to two teenage children. She lives in Buckinghamshire with her husband, children, rescue dog and three rescue cats. She enjoys caravanning and outdoor living, singing and musical theatre.
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