Breathe in through your nose. Hold it. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Breathe out through your nose. Feel your stomach rise and fall. Repeat.
It’s amazing what something as simple as taking a few deep breaths can do for a person during a moment of stress. Yet, for both young and old alike, these relaxation techniques usually don’t come naturally. Instead, they need to be learned, practiced and implemented over time.
For those on the autism spectrum, anxiety and feeling overwhelmed can often go hand in hand — which means learning these types of techniques can be especially important. And not just for the child. As a parent, seeing your child becoming anxious and overwhelmed has the potential to create an anxiety domino effect that can leave everyone feeling unglued if not dealt with.
“The best thing for parents to do is to teach their children how to deal with stress before they get into a stressful situation,” says Devon Sundberg, MS, BCBA, and chief executive officer and co-owner of Behavior Analysis Center for Autism (BACA), which has offices in central Indiana. “Breathing techniques are particularly helpful. Also consider systematic desensitization, a technique where we gradually introduce stressful events for longer and longer durations. Offer big rewards for handling the stressful event successfully. This is an appropriate technique for addressing phobias. Also, consider what stress-related behavior is acceptable for your child.”
Sundberg recommends that caregivers ensure the child has an effective calming routine and rehearse it often so that it becomes effortless to implement.
At BACA, a methodology called Behavioral Relaxation Therapy is used that teaches the child the appropriate calming posture and breathing. With this therapy, once a child’s behavior begins to escalate, the child is prompted to take a break. During the break, the child goes to their safe space and engages in their calming routine.
“[BRT] has been incredibly helpful for our clients to learn how to manage their anxiety — but it is a lot of work,” Sundberg says.
So, how can parents help their children in stressful situations? “Does your child have the means to request to escape a stressful situation if feasible?” Sundberg says. “Give your child the tools to ask for a break if appropriate, or escape the task at hand. The American Sign Language sign for “break” is a great, portable tool you can use anywhere.”
Another great stress management tool for families is to ensure they are getting lots of physical activity in a day. Going for a family walk, riding a bike, kicking a ball or taking a trip to the park can help to blow off steam, increase levels of well-being, bond a family and help manage anxiety.
With some of these tools in your child’s tool belt, he or she will hopefully be better able to handle the stressful moments that arise in a day. It’s good to be proactive. If you begin to see a situation escalating, take action. “The best way to handle stressful situations is to not let them get to a point of no return,” Sundberg says.