Managing anxiety and sensory overload present a core challenge for those with autism and their caregivers. These two obstacles can limit social engagement and successful navigation of social environments. Below are six tips that have worked for my family and others to help those affected by autism develop resilience in difficult situations. When successful, these interventions open up a world of greater involvement and connectedness.
1. Identify and list contributing factors
Identifying factors which contribute to autistic social difficulties may seem an easy task, but this first step is often challenging for families. Sometimes, the stress of the difficulties or their frequency makes it difficult to think through these factors. Other times, it seems impossible to determine the triggers.
Either way, writing them down, keeping a journal and asking for others’ observations are simple steps caregivers can take to start identifying these factors. Once you have developed a list, it becomes easier to clarify and organize the factors contributing to specific problems.
2. Determine the threshold for each difficulty
Individuals affected by autism become overwhelmed when their tolerance threshold has been exceeded. Where that threshold lies varies by activity, stimulus and individual differences.
For example, a person who seems overwhelmed by the wind may be able to tolerate a gentle breeze around buildings, but not at parks where it blows leaves around or causes tablecloths and awnings to flap. Likewise, that person might enjoy the sensation of a gentle breeze when they are well-rested and relaxed but are unable to handle it when tired and stressed.
As best you can, note the limits you observe. The key in making these observations is to learn how much the person can tolerate BEFORE experiencing a meltdown.
3. Develop a plan for success in those challenging environments
Borrowing heavily from systematic desensitization principles, I have found success in helping others adapt to challenging environments and even overcoming them. This involves the following components:
- Allowing exposure to the stressors, but not to the point of overwhelming your loved one
- Repeated, short exposures to the stressors without long periods between times (i.e. weekly or bi-weekly library visits or grocery store trips) until they have achieved mastery of them
- Providing education and problem-solving, if appropriate, to equip them in the challenge (outside of the stressful environment)
- Encouraging the child repeatedly before and during the stressful exposure of their ability to handle the situation
- Assuring the individual you will leave as soon as they have tried their tools and/or their threshold has been met
- Gradually extending the time in those situations as improvement is demonstrated
- Reducing other stressful situations while targeting one
4. Solicit their involvement/agreement if possible.
Even if your child is nonverbal, talking with them about your love and concern for them in these situations is vital. Framing the plan you have developed as a tool to help them achieve greater social skill navigation. goes a long way in garnering their cooperation. Talking about their struggle, and your desire to help them with it, demonstrates respect for them and encourages a teamwork dynamic.
5. Start by targeting the most troublesome barrier
In most families, there is one issue that rises above the rest. If possible, I recommend working on that one barrier first to build momentum for success and to quickly reduce familial stress. Perhaps it is sitting in church or being in groups of other children; whatever it is, get focused and marshal your energies to hit it first. Let the other challenges take a backseat so you can work together on this one goal.
6. Give grace, understanding, and compassion to one another
This process will not be easy. You will need to rely on encouragement, and support from others as you grapple with these challenges. Your family will also need to practice patience while giving grace for unmet goals and do-overs as you all adapt.
For our family, having the prayers and help of friends while we tackled the hardest problems carried us through. In that time, a couple of verses which encouraged me greatly were Genesis 33:13-14 . In these verses, Jacob is leading his family and herds on a long journey. They are stressed, tired and overwhelmed. Jacob refuses to drive them too hard on the road, but to travel instead at the pace his family is setting.
As you move forward in tackling issues with your child, I encourage you to let your loved one set the pace. Challenge and support them. Then, celebrate as the struggle gives way to greater confidence, skills, involvement, and hope.