ANXIETY, REPETITIVE BEHAVIOURS
and SPECIAL INTERESTS
Feeling very anxious much of the time is very common in children with
autism. However, your child may not be able to tell you why he is feeling
anxious. Instead it may show in these ways:
- Tantrums and aggressive behaviour
- Becoming withdrawn and not wanting any interaction with others
- Experiencing pain
- Becoming distressed
- Feeling tired a lot of the time
- Changing patterns of sleep
There may be many causes of anxiety which makes it difficult for parents to
know what to do or how to react. Making sense of the world around them
and not understanding social rules are very common reasons for feeling
anxious and stressed. Other reasons can include:
- Meeting strangers
- Being given too many choices
- Not being able to communicate what they need
- Changes in routine
- New activities or places
- Experiencing unpleasant sensations, eg, noisy environments
- Transitions from one activity to another (no matter how small)
- Trauma – remembering unpleasant events, eg, visit to doctor, dentist,hairdresser – which, if asked to repeat, makes them anxious.
Sometimes, children with autism can be anxious about more than one thing
at a time. This may cause overload, which could then lead to extreme
anxiety behaviours (meltdowns).
HOW CAN I HELP TO REDUCE ANXIETY?
Some children with autism may appear to control situations or take part in
things only on their terms. This might be because being in control helps
reduce their anxiety levels. It is important to remember this when deciding
how to manage your child’s behaviour.
- Try to stay calm yourself – Your own anxiety, anger or frustration may make things worse.
- Keep a diary of the behaviour – You may begin to see what has triggered the anxiety. It is sure to be something from one of the four categories of autism.
- Make routines and stick to them – If you do need to change a routine, give your child as much warning as possible. Explain what will happen instead.
- Allow breaks between activities – e.g. getting dressed then having breakfast.
- Give one instruction at a time.
- Allow time to process information.
- ‘Fiddle toys’ may help – e.g. stress balls, plasticine.
- Identify a ‘safe’ place that your child can go to when anxious Make sure other people are aware of and respect this.
- Provide a ‘Time Out’ card – Teach your child how to use this when he needs to remove himself from a situation.
- Use an ‘Anxiety Scale’ – Older children can be helped to identify the level of anxiety.
- Be tolerant – Try to accept your child’s way of calming himself, no matter how difficult or annoying this may be to you.
- Use Social Stories to help understand social rules.
Some behaviour is very obvious e.g. head banging, while others are not so
easy to notice, e.g. blinking or eye rolling.
Although the reason for these behaviours is not completely clear, we know
that children with autism experience a lot of chaos and anxiety, so repetitive
behaviour is a way of bringing predictability to what is, for them, an
unpredictable and frightening world.
Some children learn ways of monitoring this behaviour. Some of the tips about
managing anxiety will help. However, it is important to understand that, whatever
the behaviour it is something your child needs to do in order to find peace.
All children have favourite things, games, toys, films but some children with
autism seem to develop interests in a way that makes it seem as though
they are obsessed. They may retreat into their own little world for hours and
hours, or they might want to talk non-stop about their interest, which makes it difficult for them to develop friendships.
Special interests, like repetitive behaviours may be for the following reasons:
• To reduce anxiety
• To keep a sense of calm
• To feel happy
• To avoid having to do another activity
Special interests can be anything at all. However, there are some that are common:
• Dr Who
• Thomas the Tank
• Cartoon Characters
• Types of cars
Although special interests can interfere with learning or daily living activities,
they can also be used to motivate and used as an incentive for your child.
They can tell you a lot about what your child enjoys; what he may be
naturally good at and where his strengths and abilities lie.
HOW CAN I HELP MANAGE MY CHILD’S SPECIAL INTEREST?
• Be patient and tolerant – allow for the autism.
• Show your child that you know how important their interest is to them.
• Don’t criticise or tease your child’s special interest.
• If it is interfering with other activities, offer them specific times for them to
spend on their interest but it is important that you keep to this agreement,
unless you have given warning.
• Look for ways to expand the special interest.
• Special interests can be a way of making friends.
• Use the special interest as a way of engaging with your child. You may
have to learn more about it!
• If you have to travel, if possible try to take their special interest with you
so they have an instant comforter if anxious or bored.
• Although the special interest may seem pointless or silly to you, it might
be the most precious thing in the world to your child. It is also serving an
important purpose which may not be obvious straight away.