How to Teach Your Child Calming Strategies for Autism

When kids with autism can learn to relax, they develop lifelong coping skills for life’s demands. An expert at Healing Haven shares the whys and hows.

Because life provides plenty of everyday challenges, every child benefits from learning effective relaxation techniques. This is extra true for kids with autism. “Research shows that children with autism tend to have a lot of anxiety, so it makes sense for them to learn ways to relax and stay calm,” says Jennifer Thomas, Ph.D., BCBA-D, LBA, Director of Clinical Standards at Healing Haven. Calming strategies for autism are so important that each child at the Madison Heights-based ABA therapy center for individuals with autism and other developmental needs has an individualized plan for practicing calming techniques.

“We work to be proactive because relaxation techniques are so helpful for bringing the body’s physiology in balance so when things happen that are unexpected or unwanted, a child’s body and brain are more likely to respond well if they are in a state of relaxation,” Dr. Thomas says.

From Healing Haven’s early intervention clinic for kids up to age 5, to the school-readiness clinic for kids ages 5 to 11, to the life skills clinic for kids 11 to 16, all kids at Healing Haven have access to areas where they can practice calming strategies for autism and relaxation. Each building has a sensory room with items such as dimmed lighting, illuminated clouds, and water machines that create colored bubbles and soft music — all of which provide cues to calm.

“The sensory room is everybody’s favorite room. It is very relaxing,” says Dr. Thomas.

How it works

With practice, kids who master calming strategies for autism work to reprogram their body’s automatic responses to stress. “We discover what you can do to affect the amygdala so it’s not firing all the time. The idea is to change the structure of the brain through relaxation so that when a child with autism encounters something that is unpredictable, they don’t have such an exaggerated response,” Dr. Thomas explains.

There are so many different techniques for achieving a calm state of mind and different things work for different people, so ABA therapists at Healing Haven work with each child to find out what helps them specifically.

“We teach deep breathing exercises, but that might not be the right technique especially for younger kids. They might prefer a walk or yoga,” she says.

A 2-year-old might find a state of relaxation through jumping on a trampoline, going for a walk, or exploring deep pressure. All of these activities are done proactively to help keep kids in a calm state. Older, more advanced kids who have language skills can participate in body scanning exercises, drawing pictures or writing in a journal.

“Some prefer a progressive muscle relaxation technique, where they purposely squeeze the muscles in an area of their body, then let go and relax. This really teaches children to learn to discriminate when their muscles feel tense throughout their day, and with practice, they can learn to relax those muscles,” Dr. Thomas says.

Something for every child

At Healing Haven, when a child’s ABA therapist discovers a technique that provides a feeling of calm, they schedule time to proactively practice that skill with the child each day.

“Some kids are already very relaxed so they might just practice in the morning and in the afternoon. Others might need to tap into something that provides relaxation every 30 or 60 minutes or so. They might go for a walk, take a wagon ride or go on the swing,” Dr. Thomas says.

Of course, it makes sense for kids to have skills to help them cope when times get tough, but being proactive is key, Dr. Thomas says. “If you can learn a relaxation technique that works for you, and learn to notice you are getting upset, you can engage in that technique before you advance to maladaptive behavior,” she explains. “You can take a moment and go into a quiet room and sit. Or you can breathe. That’s the ideal goal.”

With practice, kids learn to better manage challenges. “If anything happens during the day and they are not excited about it, they are in a better place to handle that bump,” she says.

Calming strategies for autism to try at home

Relaxation skills are more accessible to children with autism if they can practice them at home, too. Parents can try different techniques or talk with their child’s ABA therapist to learn what might work and set time aside to practice at home.

Some techniques require a bit of training, but others are simple and very effective.

“Maybe squeeze a ball or use one of those small balls that are filled with sand. Music is another thing that doesn’t require training, or set aside time every day to get out markers and paper,” Dr. Thomas suggests.

Time spent in nature is often very relaxing, as is water play with a bucket or even taking a bath. For young children, movement should be a part of every day. “There are studies that link movement and development in children. If they are not tumbling and spending some time being inverted and playing, their cognitive scores go down,” Dr. Thomas says.

Helping your child reduce stress can help you, too.

“We talk with parents about their own stress levels and home environment and what they can do to de-stress as well. We talk to parents about ways to organize their days to bring about less stress, and we stress the importance of taking care of themselves in an effort to best care for their children,” Dr. Thomas says.

“If parents want to find a way to fit stress management practices into their schedule, we can recommend ways to fit it in. We might start with time in the morning and afternoon, just baby steps. You can give it a go and we can revisit and adjust,” she says.

“Everybody needs a skill set for relaxation and to learn ways to deal with the challenges of life. When we teach the skills to deal with the unpredictable demands of life, anxiety is lowered.”

Learn more about Healing Haven at thehealinghaven.net.

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