Parents may find that typical approaches to using relaxation are not always effective for children with ASD. The difficulties related to each of the three main components of ASD – social impairments, communication deficits, and restricted interests/repetitive behaviors – may make more traditional approaches difficult.
Children with ASD may not understand or respond to abstract social ideas, such as the importance of staying calm. This may make your child less aware of the need to use strategies to relax or to copy the calm behaviors of people around them.
Children with ASD may have difficulty understanding and following what is said to them. They also may not be able to express their wants and needs to others effectively. This may make it hard for your child to tell others about the emotions they experience. It may also be more difficult for your child to understand others’ suggestions that they may need to calm down.
Children with ASD often have a hard time reading their own emotions. They also may have very strong or unexpected reactions to certain things around them. Because of this, it may be hard for your child to recognize the cues of his or her body that tell them that they need to relax. It also may be hard for other people to help your child use these strategies to calm down after he or she has become upset.
Certain changes can be made in order to effectively use these strategies with your child:
Try to teach relaxation strategies at scheduled times in the day instead of when your child is already anxious. Reward your child immediately after practicing relaxation. This encourages continued practice and adds another positive connection with relaxation. Later when you use these strategies when your child is worried, he or she will connect it with something positive. Your child will trust that something good will follow, just as it has during practice sessions.
Try to use these strategies before your child becomes worried, instead of only using them to calm your child down after becoming upset. It is best to use these beforehand (for example, at home before going to the doctor’s office, in the car before going in to the office, in the waiting room), even if your child does not seem worried at that point. It is also helpful to use these strategies when mild signs of anxiety are noticed (for example, your child becoming fidgety or making anxious comments).
It is important to use visual supports (for example, pictures) or other concrete cues while putting relaxation strategies in place. Use them as a quick reminder to your child that it is time to use these strategies. Visual supports can also be used to explain in more direct ways what you want your child to do and to help your child rate how anxious he or she may be. This will be more helpful than trying to explain this through talking.