7 Calming Strategies for Autism Every Parent or Guardian Should Know
Some experts suggest that up to 50% of children may be diagnosed with autism by 2025. While this may seem like an overestimation, it's clear that we're always learning more about autism and how to identify and manage it.
One important aspect of managing autism in adults and children is developing calming strategies. Calming strategies for autism can help during overwhelming social situations and even at home during stressful periods.
We're here with a few calming tips for parents and caregivers. Read on to learn more.
First: How to Notice the Signs of an Impending Meltdown
Before we discuss some helpful autism calming strategies, let's talk about how to know when you're about to need them. Noticing the signs of a meltdown on the horizon (or a "quiet" meltdown when it's currently happening) will help you act more quickly and help your loved one with autism.
When a meltdown is in full swing, it may look like a "temper tantrum," especially if the person with autism is a child. Meltdowns are different because they tend to happen as a result of sensory overload.
Before the obvious meltdown, you can notice other more subtle signs.
The person with autism may start showing signs that they're experiencing sensory overload. They may cover their ears or close their eyes to block out stimuli. On the other side, they may start seeking out sensory experiences by touching things with interesting textures.
They may start "stimming." Stimming is normal behavior for all people, but it's more obvious in children and adults with autism. It's a self-stimulating (and often self-soothing) movement that can be anything from dancing to chewing on fingernails.
They may start withdrawing from interaction, even if they were engaging before.
When you start to notice these signs, even if they're subtle, that's the best time to start using the following calming techniques. Don't wait until your loved one with autism is already melting down.
1. Use Sensory Objects
Sensory objects and toys are perfect for soothing the early stages of a meltdown. They can help decrease sensory overload (even if that seems counterintuitive) and provide a helpful distraction for the person with autism.
There are plenty of sensory toys on the market if you want something convenient. Slime and fidget toys are popular options. They're easy to fit into a pocket or handbag so they're great for on-the-go use.
Anything that triggers the senses is going to work, however, so if you don't have a sensory toy on hand, don't worry.
Sweets, music with headphones, temperature objects (like ice or hand warmers), and sunglasses can all be effective. Basically, you're looking for something that will cause a new sensory experience to take your loved one "out" of their bad sensory experience.
2. Provide an Escape
If it's possible to do so, remove your loved one from the situation at least short term. Having an escape route pre-planned will comfort them because they'll know that they don't have to stay in an uncomfortable situation (which will make them feel safer).
If you don't have a pre-planned escape route, try to keep an eye out when you're out and about. Look around for quiet places or exits. In a pinch, a family restroom is a great escape destination because your loved one can be alone.
If there's no obvious way out or clear quiet place, try to find a tucked-away corner. Even taking a lap around the location can be helpful if you can't actively leave.
3. Offer Distractions
Distractions won't always work as autism calming strategies, but it's still a good idea to have a few in mind when you know that you're going to be in a stressful situation.
Distraction objects, like sensory toys (as we mentioned before) are helpful, but what happens when you don't have them available? It isn't always possible to keep extra things on hand.
There are still ways to calm down an autistic child or adult without physical objects.
First, try bringing up a favorite subject of theirs. Many people with autism have special interests. Those interests are sure to generate excitement and conversation, and that can be more than enough to distract your loved one from a stressful situation.
You can also redirect their attention. Let's say you're at the mall and your loved one is becoming overwhelmed. Direct their attention to a nearby store or item and start talking about it.
This will provide a brief break that may be enough to calm them down.
4. Try Breathing Techniques
Breathing techniques are helpful for anyone experiencing a meltdown, and people with autism are no exception.
It's helpful to teach your loved one breathing techniques before a meltdown happens. Do it when they're calm and happy. This way, they'll be ready when they need to self-soothe.
You can also combine breathing techniques with other soothing techniques for even greater benefits.
Meditation is fantastic for many people with autism, though it can be a challenge to learn. When someone meditates, they're able to quiet their mind and focus on their breathing instead of the stimuli around them.
Take your loved one out of the stressful situation and encourage them to meditate, even if it's only for a few moments.
If meditation isn't convenient, combine breathing techniques with grounding exercises. Grounding exercises also pair well with sensory objects. The "54321" grounding exercise is the most popular.
Talk to your loved one's therapist or doctor about breathing or grounding exercises that they'd recommend. They may be helping your loved one with these exercises during sessions.
5. Don't Underestimate Exercise and Movement
If it's convenient to do so, try soothing your loved one with autism by encouraging exercise and joyful movement. This will help them burn off some of that excess negative energy so they're able to calm down and go through the rest of their day.
If you're at home when the meltdown happens, this is going to be a great option.
We recommend creating some kind of sensory path for quick and easy movement breaks. You could buy a sensory path, but "DIY"ing it is simple and you can turn it into an activity that you can do together.
Outdoor chalk paths, similar to hopscotch paths, can be effective. You can also add small hurdles and challenges to the path, like things to step over or jump on.
When you have more time, you can encourage an actual exercise session. Running, jumping, and doing strength exercises will stimulate your loved one with autism and help them calm down.
Here's our page of helpful links that includes resources for exercise (and more).
6. Start a Yoga Routine
This won't necessarily help when you're out in public or in the middle of a serious meltdown, but starting a yoga practice when your loved one is calm is a great idea.
Yoga incorporates several of the other helpful calming techniques. It encourages deep breathing (known as "yogic breathing"), grounding, and even elements of meditation.
It's also a way to add more movement into your loved one's day. In yoga, the goal is to focus on your breath and your body instead of the things going on around you.
Many people think that children and adults with autism won't benefit from yoga in the same way that neurotypical people will, but this isn't true. There's actually research to suggest that yoga can be beneficial for people with autism, though that research is in its early stages.
7. Have a Game Plan Ahead of Time
This is the most important thing that you can do when it comes to soothing someone with autism before or during a meltdown. You should always have a game plan before any event that could be stressful. Share that plan with your loved one so they know what to do when they're feeling overwhelmed.
Having a set "pre-meltdown routine" can make your loved one feel more comfortable. People with autism benefit from routines and structure.
Preparing your loved one will set both of you up for success. Make sure to include a plan for how they can notify you when they're starting to experience overload (if it's possible for them to do so).
Keep These Calming Strategies for Autism in Mind
Keep this list in mind when you're trying to figure out how to help a child with autism calm down, or even an overwhelmed adult. These calming strategies for autism won't help every person, but through trial and error, you should be able to find at least one that's effective.
Remember: your loved one is melting down because they're experiencing sensory overload. Remove the stimuli, let them get rid of excess energy, or redirect their attention to help. Most important: always have a plan.
Are you looking for more ways to calm down an autistic child or adult? At Daybreak, we can help. Contact us to learn more about our services that can help your loved one thrive.