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Young Children With Autism—Three Simple Tips to Help Your Upset Child!

You decide to go out to dinner as a special treat for your kids, but things start going wrong from the beginning. There is a wait at the restaurant and you know your three-year-old doesn’t do well with waiting. Once you are seated, you learn that they don’t serve chicken nuggets, your child’s favorite. Your child is getting agitated, and you know there are good reasons, but you are frustrated. You start telling your child to calm down, that they can’t leave, that they need to learn how go places that aren’t perfect….Eventually, your child’s whimpers turn into tears, then into flailing on the ground, until you finally grab everyone and leave without finishing. The special treat turns into a total disaster.

Does this sound like your family? The good news is that there are plenty of things you can do right now—no training needed! At young ages, parents are their child’s best teachers. In future blogs we will describe the difference between tantrums and meltdowns; what sensory overload is and how to reduce it, and how to teach your young child strategies to calm themselves down. But for now, let’s talk about some simple suggestions you can implement today to help your child in times of crisis. These suggestions are not just simple, but can also be used with ALL young children, not just those with autism.

1. Use a countdown chart.

a) Write the numbers 5-1 in descending order. This can be on a small whiteboard or just a piece of paper. Whenever there is a difficult transition coming up, use the countdown chart. It can be used to prepare to leave a preferred activity or to help them complete a non-preferred activity.

· “Ok, in five minutes it’s time to turn off the video.”

· “In five minutes, we have to go back home from the park.”

· “Five more bites, then you can have a muffin.”

· “We will draw five circles, then you are done.”

b) With each passing minute (or bite or circle, etc.), you cross off the last number and remind them of the next number.

· “Four more minutes and then turn off the video.”

· “Four more bites, then muffin.”

c) Continue with each number, crossing off the last and reminding of the next, until you cross off the last number.

· “All done, time to____!”

· “All done, now you can play!)

d) Note: “Minutes” don’t need to be 60 seconds. It can be shorter, longer, or vary. It’s the concept that counts.

2. Talk less.

Please stop talking so much! Yes, we said it! Don’t worry; almost all adults do this to children. When children are upset, adults tend to talk more and talk louder. When your child is dysregulated or in a meltdown, you need to talk less or not at all.

· Don’t ask what’s wrong.

· Don’t offer suggestions.

· Don’t tell them that they are fine or ok. Instead, just be with them.

· Do sit near them (if they are ok with that).

· Do validate them. (I am sorry you are so upset.)

· Do be honest. (I don’t know how to help you, but I am here.)

3. Give them choices.

When your child is getting anxious, stressed, or upset, instead of giving them a direction (Eat your dinner), try giving them a choice (Do you want to eat a sandwich or a yogurt?). This gives them a sense of control. When we feel powerless, we are more likely to feel frustrated and upset. Having a sense of some control helps all people feel calmer.

But will it work?

As long-time educators, we can guarantee that these tools do work, as long as you use them consistently—that means every time! Here are some examples of how these tools have helped other families:

1. Aidan is a five-year-old who may or may not have autism, but he does have huge meltdowns during transitions from one activity to another, such as going from play time to meal time, or from being on a walk to coming home. His parents felt overwhelmed because they didn’t know how to help him. They learned how to use the countdown chart and implemented it immediately. Within the first day his meltdowns during transitions stopped. It worked like a charm.

2. Aoki is a three-year-old who was at a restaurant with his family. The restaurant was loud and crowded, but Aoki was working hard to control his anxiety, until there was a big delay in getting their food. Aoki hit his tipping point, fell to the floor, and started to cry and kick. Aoki’s dad was embarrassed and began to chastise Aoki, repeating “Tell me what’s wrong” over and over and telling Aoki to calm down. The dad began to talk louder and faster, becoming more upset himself, and Aoki responded in kind. Then Dad remembered the advice he had read in an online blog about talking less during upset times. Dad immediately stopped talking and got down on the floor with Aoki, even though they were in a restaurant. He reached out and hugged his son, and told him, “I’m so sorry you are upset. I am sorry I yelled.” Aoki huddled in his dad’s arms and took deep breaths, then stood up and took Dad’s hand. Together they went for a short walk until the food was ready and Aoki felt calmer. On the way back, a couple complimented Aoki’s dad for responding so compassionately to his son.

3. Coral is a four-year-old with severe autism who is learning to communicate by using a device. She becomes extremely frustrated when she is unable to communicate or obtain what she needs. Recently, Coral used her device to ask for pancakes. Her mom realized that they were out of Coral’s favorite pancake mix and tried to explain it to Coral, who was beginning to have a meltdown. Coral’s mom grabbed a box of frozen French toast sticks and a book, and offered both to her daughter. “I’m sorry, Coral, but no pancakes. You can have French toast or you can look at the book to help you calm down.” Sobbing, Coral reached for the book and sat with it until she was calm, then was able to accept another choice for breakfast. Giving Coral choices gave her some control over the situation.

Simple and positive--what's not to like?

In each of these situations, the parents could have resorted to punishment or threats, but instead chose to try a different approach. They realized that these situations were challenging for their children, and decided to help try a more positive approach. Young children crave consistency, structure, and boundaries. These three strategies can help you provide those things. Give them a try…and see if they work for your child! As a parent, you are the expert! For more tools to use with your child at home, check out the chapter, "Parents Are Experts, Too!" by Rene De Loss, from Life After Lockdown: Resetting Perceptions of Autism by clicking this link. And please let us know how it goes!

Do you have a question about behavior? Use the comments below to ask our team of autistic and neurotypical experts. We promise to respond quickly!

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