How can I help my autistic child cope when they’re overwhelmed?

It’s a question probably every parent of an autistic child has asked (maybe even more than once – or twice!) When our child has a meltdown, we want to do everything we can to soothe them and help them cope.

But how?

The first, and probably most important first step is knowing when they’re likely to have a meltdown – recognizing triggers and avoiding them if possible is a good start. But sometimes those triggers can’t be avoided, and that’s when we need to know what coping strategies we can pass on and teach them, so that the next time they’re exposed to that trigger – with or without us nearby – they’ll know better what to do.

So how do we know a meltdown is probable – or at the very least, that our child is having difficulty coping in the moment?

Watch out for changes to routine. It could be that a school bus is late. It could be that your shift at work has changed, and now you’re making dinner a little earlier or are getting home a lot later. It could be that it’s the start of a new school year, which means a new teacher, a new classroom, and a whole new group of kids. Changes in routine can be devastating to some kids with autism, and that kind of disruption is not just uncomfortable, it’s downright painful.
Consider an overstimulating environment. Loud noises, bright lights, flashes, or even changes in temperature can overwhelm a child with autism.

Scary social situations. Some kids with autism do just fine in social settings, but many can feel stress over having to be in a social situation. It might be that they don’t recognize anyone in the group, or they may be stressed about having to make conversation, or it might just be too loud, with too many people, all at once.

While these aren’t the only kinds of situations that might trigger an overwhelmed response, they’re some of the most common. And fortunately, there are lots of coping strategies that we can use to help our children learn how to better manage how they’re feeling when they find themselves in a space that makes them unhappy, uncomfortable, or afraid.

Now, none of the tips here are guaranteed to be sure-fire ways to eliminate or minimize meltdowns, but they’ve been proven by many parents in many circumstances to at least help. When autistic kids find themselves in difficult situations, even with the best intentions and the best strategies aren’t necessarily going to be entirely alleviated of their fears or pain. So meltdowns may still occur, but over time, these skills will be honed… and your child will find something that works for them.

Here are some strategies to try out:

•Taking a walk
•Running (or any kind of exercise)
•Using sensory/fidget toys
•Meditating or practicing mindfulness
•Deep breathing
•Playing with a calm down kit
•Telling social stories
•Sitting in a room alone
•Playing with a favorite toy
•Engaging in a favorite activity

The coping strategies your child responds to may be a combination of any of the above, and it’s a good idea to plan out beforehand what you can do before the meltdown occurs. Just as you would benefit from recognizing the triggers of an overwhelming event, if your child can also learn to recognize what stresses them out, they can be better prepared.

It’s so important to build and grow coping skills, because as your child gets older, you may not always be there to help them feel better in stressful situations. The more they know how to deal with their emotions, the more successful they’ll be when faced with something unpleasant – and not only will feel better, you will too.

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