As with the learning of any new behavior, prior to teaching specific coping skills, there needs to be an environment of success before new learning can occur. There are two strategies that are particularly helpful for people with ASD when it comes to establishing a coping environment. The first is to designate a specific place for coping which can be referred to as the 'calm spot.' The spot can be anywhere the person considers calming, but is typically a place that is associated with calm/positive feelings and can be easily accessed by the person. For example, you would not want the calm spot to be in the same place where the person receives discipline measures or typically performs a difficult task. The spot should look and feel comforting, using a comfortable chair with pillows and heavy blankets to provide needed sensory input. Pictures with calming images or calming music may also be helpful. The key is that it has to be calming for that person.
Once the calm spot is established, then the person can be encourgaged to go there when upset. A possible prompt may be "I can't help you now becuase you are upset. If you go to the calm spot, I can help you once you are calm." Please assure the individual that this is not a punitive based 'time out' where theyare being punished for doing something wrong, but rather an opportunity to feel better and receive the help they need. The person stays in the calm spot until they are visibly calmer. They do not have to stay seated. The person can move around in the general vicinity if that is helpful. Interaction with the person should be minimal; perhaps an initial prompt for coping suggestions and monitoring for safety. Once the person appears visibly calmer, then the person can leave the calm spot (if they choose to do so) and greater interaction/problem solving can begin. There is no specific time limit. The person can stay in the spot as long as they need to. If the person leaves before they are calm, let them know that they still appear upset and encourage them to spend a little more time in their spot.
The other important strategy in establishing a coping environment is to model coping behavior. The person with ASD may not fully understand what it means to be calm and may need to have this demonstrated for them. In order for this to happen, the parent/caregiver/supervisor present must remain calm in front of the person with ASD. This establishes the baseline image for what calm is supposed to look like. Once this is established then coping strategies can be modeled such as deep breathing, counting, wrapping oneself in the blankets, squeezing the pillows, listening to the music etc. Over time the calming techniques can be converted into a routine that the person with ASD does with little prompting or independently. Once the routine is firmly established, scaffolding procedures (mentioned in a previous post) can be used to help generalize the coping routine to other areas as needed. The routine may also be modified for use in public places. Either way, once the person with ASD feels comfortable with the idea of coping and developing a coping routine, then the teaching of specific coping strategies becomes much easier. The next post will focus on specific physical relaxation strategies.
Steven C. Altabet, Ph.D