This blog is the third in a support series for parents by Marci Lebowitz, occupational therapist and autism specialist. Find out more about how Marci supports autism parents and professionals at www.marcilebowitz.com.
An Autism Parent’s Approach to Calming
Recently my brother and my son joined me at an outdoor event that I was working at. Wyatt, my 15-year-old who has autism, was not interested in sitting with me, so they went for a nice stroll, lunch, and later returned to the relative peace and quiet of our van.
All the changes in the environment, the sounds, the lights, and the crowds were too much. In a short period of time, Wyatt escalated and had a meltdown.
When my cell phone rang, I could see the call was from my brother and I was curious to hear how things were going. However it only took a couple of words from my brother to recognize the alarm and anxiety in his voice. He was using what we call his 911 voice. This triggered a refined and honed process for me. The first step was to calm myself and to walk quickly with an air of relaxation over to where my van was parked, which had become the focus of many people.
I quietly approached Wyatt and my brother, saying nothing and taking in the scene. The fire department, the paramedics, patrol cars, and onlookers surrounded them. I recognized Wyatt’s severe discomfort and knew he was very close to the point where he could injure himself.
It was all escalating very rapidly.
It was time for me to take control of all aspects of this situation. The first thing I did was to become as calm as I could. I worked to slow down my breathing. Then I began to support Wyatt as he was escalating rapidly. I gently explained to him that I was there for him, he was safe, and I was helping him. I never tell him to calm down. For most people with autism this simply makes things worse. I gently acknowledged his state with firmness and resolve while keeping us both safe and letting him sense that I was comfortable and in control of this situation.
Within a few minutes of my arrival, I reassured the onlookers and convinced the town’s emergency services that we were fine. I used the simple system to help Wyatt de-escalate.
I have learned that I calm my son by:
- Being able to calm myself first.
- Helping him feel emotionally understood, safe, and surrounded by people who are in control.
- Finding effective sensory comfort combinations that relieve his stress.
~Kelly Green, Parent/Advocate, autismhwy.com
Tips For Calming Your Child: Please Calm Yourself First
This article is going to help you learn how to work with Kelly’s point #1 – the importance of being able to calm yourself first.
Most of us have been taught to calm a child by doing specific techniques on the child. While these are very important, there is something else you can do as a first step that will profoundly impact your ability to soothe your child.
Have you considered that your own emotional state may play a role in your child’s responses? Autistic children are extraordinarily sensitive to the emotions of others and they mirror the state of those around them. If you are anxious and your child is already anxious, your child may become overwhelmed. While your being calm, relaxed and feeling in control will not totally relax your child, it is a fundamental step to beginning to help your child to relax. Besides your own state of calm, there is a need to help them feel understood, safe, and to have effective sensory calming strategies.
An integral part of feeling calm is efficient breathing. Please refer to my first blog post if you haven’t read it to understand the importance of breathing in self-regulation. When breathing is inefficient, it creates anxiety which can make a person become more amped up and anxious. They can feel spacey, have difficulties focusing, thinking, problem solving, following directions, and cooperating.
When you are around someone who is anxious, have you ever noticed yourself becoming more anxious and wound up? Have you ever experienced being around someone who is calm? Do you notice that you relax just being around them? The same is true for children with autism. Their anxiety can come from: not understanding what is expected of them, not understanding sequencing or timing and also feeling the anxiety and unrest of others. As mentioned in my first blog post, I have found that most children with autism are chest breathers. Chronic chest breathing can contribute to anxiety, heightened sensory awareness and stress.
As A Parent, What Can You Do To Help?
I’d like to encourage you to begin to explore ways to relax yourself, so that you are able to change your state to one of calm during the times your child needs you most. I know you have a lot on your plate, however, investing in learning to calm yourself can have rich rewards. As a result, you can have a calmer, more relaxed child.
In this article I will offer you simple, do-able suggestions that you can implement in the course of your daily life. These won’t require you having the perfect environment, to stop what you are doing or have a lot of time to practice. These can be easily integrated into your daily lifestyle and routine, possibly in the car, washing dishes, doing laundry, making dinner, putting kids to bed, etc.
Tip #1 – Understand the impact of your state on your child.
Being calm at your child’s times of need gives them a feeling of calm they can begin to mirror.
Managing your own state as a parent influences your child’s behavior as well as the emotional state of others around you. If we are out of control and frantic, other people will mirror this. If we can learn how to approach the situation of our child melting down in public calmly, and are able to calmly reassure others around us, everyone will sense that you know what you are doing, you are in control of the situation and that they are safe.
With this sense of control, it helps the autistic child move within the energy of others, and you can begin to relax when you and your supersensitive child is outside of the house.
Tip #2 – Learn simple breathing patterns to be done during daily life routines.
Children will mirror your breathing patterns. This is called resonance.
The most important part of the breathing pattern is the exhale. Allow yourself to take a gentle inhale through your nose, and exhale through your mouth as if you are sighing while gently pulling in your tummy.
A simple practice is to focus on exhaling three times. This will help you to begin to slow down and relax. Though very simple, this practice is very powerful to quickly settle down.
You can put a notes around the house reminding you to breathe three times. These reminders are great when it is hard to think in the chaos.
Observe your child after you’ve done some gentle breathing to see if they may have relaxed a bit.
Tip #3 – Practice breathing when you lay down in bed.
It is easier to do this next step if you are laying down. Place your hand on your belly and gently inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth. The hand placement will help you focus on using your diaphragm to breathe. Remember, if you try to breathe in harshly when you don’t have strong diaphragmatic control, it can make you feel more anxious.
Instead of your hand, you can place a warm compress, water bottle, or heated buckwheat bags on your belly and see if it helps you breathe more deeply and relax.
Learning to shift your state and calm does not happen overnight. Please be patient with yourself as you learn to do this. I hope you find that it is worth exploring, to not only provide you with some peace, as well as your child and possibly your entire family.
In the next post, we will explore calming solutions that you can do directly with your child to help prevent meltdowns.
Please leave me your thoughts about how your ability to calm has impacted your child.
I love hearing from you!
Marci has been an occupational therapist for 28 years and an autism specialist for over a decade. During her expansive career, she has worked in schools, private outpatient practices, hospitals, a prison medical facility, and skilled nursing facilities.
Known as “the Mary Poppins of Autism,” Marci has developed effective behavioral management systems, sensory calming strategies, and alternatives to physical restraints and seclusion.
Marci is a dynamic speaker and loves educating autism parents, extended families, and professionals about the underlying causes of challenging behaviors; distinguishing between tantrums, sensory overload, and meltdowns; and how to have fun with children with severe autism! Find out more about how Marci supports autism parents and professionals at www.marcilebowitz.com.