Because people with Autism tend to have sensitive nervous systems, emotional reactions tend to come much more quickly and are stronger than those who are more typically developing. As a result, when a person with ASD becomes upset, the nervous sytem goes into almost immediate overload which make any type of rational thought virtually impossible. It makes absolutely no sense to try to problem solve with a person when they are in this state. Therefore, before any real coping can take place the person much first be able to recognize when the person is experiencing stress and STOP the escalation. Typically this involves stopping the current activity and going to a quiet place for calming. This could be as simple as going to the restroom, getting a drink of water, or taking a short walk. Once in the quiet area, the low stimulation will help slow the person's arousal and put them in a state where they can begin physical calming activities.
The first step in this process is recognizing when one is in distress. When teaching someone to recognize signs of distress in oneself, be aware of the physical signs. These include increased heart beat and breathing, muscle stiffness or pain, and stomach upset. Also, thoughts may be moving too quickly which makes decisions and activities that are normally done easily more difficult. When a person starts to feel this way they should immediately stop what they are doing, find a quiet place (perhaps excusing oneself to the restroom of water fountain) and engage in some type of calming procedure until typical physical and mental functioning is returned.
When recognizing distress in others, look for behavior that is atypical for that person or any sudden changes in behavior. General signs to look for include increased motor activity, restlessness, or agitation. This could include pacing, fidgetiness, and hyperactivity. The person may seem unusually stiff or tense, and not move as fluidly as they typically do. Also, their speech may get louder or, in contrast, they can become more quiet/withdrawn than usual. The person's need for routine and sensory functioning may additionally be more sensitive during these times. There may also be more talk about preferred interests, repetitive speech,obsessive thought, or stereotyped behavior. A change in sleep patterns or appetite may also be noticed, along with the mentioning of events previously associated with distress. In fact, many people with Autism will recall a distressing past or association in order to communicate current distress. If the distress is recognized early, the person can be prompted or redirected away from the distressing activity (temporarily) and engaged in calming activity without major incident.
The next post will review specific calming activities.
Steven C. Altabet, Ph.D.