Did you know that anxiety symptoms and disorders are the number one health problem among children and adults in America? Anxiety disorders are more common in children today, than in their parent’s generation. The Anxiety Disorders Association of America states that one in eight children are affected by an anxiety that persists beyond its normal expectation.
Anxiety is a normal part of growing up and each child is expected to go through phases of separation anxiety as they grow towards independence from their primary caretakers but this can become problematic when these stages linger. We also know that children on the Autism spectrum are more susceptible to stress and anxiety disorders – Autism and anxiety often go hand-in-hand as does stress and anxiety. Various research studies have verified that children with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) are challenged by emotions and have significant difficulty understanding and expressing emotions – their own and those of others – which puts them at higher risk of developing an anxiety disorder.
Compared to their neuro-typical peers, children with Autism have more trouble with emotional regulation making it less likely for them to identify levels of emotions and control their intensity. In addition, many children on the spectrum have more trigger points that cause sudden, heightened anxiety.
Whether it’s a new sibling or a trip to the dentist, a family vacation to Disney World or a new bed, even the simplest shift in their environment or schedule is enough to confuse a child with Autism and cause a stressful reaction.
ALL children have to be taught coping skills but kids with Autism need a more intensive course of instruction then others in order for them to learn how to cope with their fears, anxieties and things they don’t understand. So how do we help a child that has very little stress tolerance and lacks the typical ability to regulate their emotions?
Here are several things you can do to help your child cope.
- Maintain a Balanced Sensory Diet – Because children with Autism often have sensory issues, stress can be triggered by an environment that is either over or under stimulating to a child’s senses. A customized and balanced sensory diet can ward off meltdowns triggered by sensory sensitivities. Work with your child’s occupational therapist to design a diet that will meet the specific needs of your child’s sensory nervous system and help keep it under control.
- Provide Adequate Transition Time – Help your child anticipate upcoming transitions whenever possible. If the daily schedule is going to shift in the foreseeable future it’s a good idea for parents to begin addressing it days before. Discuss the change with your child using communication tools that work best, such as visual pictures and schedules, written lists or social stories. Increase you chances of success by allowing adequate time for your child to process the information – this will lead to better acceptance and ability to cope with the transition.
- Try to Understand – The worst thing you can do is listen to your child and then make a quick judgment of the situation. It’s best not to do this because it can cause your child to feel foolish and to hide his or her feelings from you in the future. Listen to what he is saying and look at it from within his world then base your response around that viewpoint.
- Don’t Dismiss – When your child shares her feelings with you, don’t dismiss them. Instead, validate your child’s feelings by letting her know that it’s okay to feel that way and that you’re always there for her. While you may think your child is over-reacting about something, her feelings are very real to her. Don’t ever dismiss the fact that she experiences the world we live in in a completely different way.
- Identify Stressors – While your child is experiencing the physical and emotional symptoms of stress, he may not connect the actual feeling of stress with the causes of stress. Therefore, it is important to help your child identify the stressors in his life and show him how those stressors can cause the symptoms he is currently experiencing. Use real life stressful situations as your laboratory and dissect them together.
Regardless of how prepared you are and how much effort you have put into helping your child cope with anxiety there will be times when your child’s stress will suddenly tip out of balance and overwhelm will set in. Know that your efforts are not in vain, even the best of us lose the ability to cope with stressful situations at times. Also, don’t forget to pay attention to the bigger picture and the things we often take for granted – a good diet, plenty of exercise and a full night’s sleep – will always work wonders.