The coronavirus quarantine coinciding with Autism Awareness Month can be a lesson in empathy for us. Unfortunately, this April we are all experiencing a month where nothing is predictable and we are all out of our ordinary routines! If you live with autism, either on the autism spectrum yourself or love someone with autism, you know that routine and predictability are BIG deals.
Throughout this quarantine, I’ve had many moments when I felt anxious, moments when I felt angry, and I have felt generally unsettled. This time has been difficult for those of us who can easily adjust to change and disruption in our lives, but for children with autism spectrum disorder, it can be even more taxing.
I want to share some activity ideas to help ourselves and our people with autism cope with this challenging time.
Guided Meditations to Create a Sense of Calm
Guided Meditations are helpful for ourselves and our children. When we meditate, we practice mindfulness and mindfulness helps you feel calm and relaxed. During meditation you are connecting different parts of your brain: the prefrontal cortex, the limbic system, and the brain stem. The neurons from these areas in your brain connect and touch each other resulting in a sense of calmness.
Thankfully, there is not one right way to meditate. The only requirement of meditation is spending a few moments being aware. There are many options available to you or your child.
- Concentrate and become aware of your breathing.
- Focus on an object that you can hold in your hand.
- Close your eyes and call up an image in your mind.
You can customize any of these methods to fit your needs. If your child is older, you can lengthen the meditation time. If your child is younger or has trouble sitting still for longer periods, make the meditation time shorter.
I have put together a Meditation Guide that I have used with children on the autism spectrum. I use the Star Essence FOCUS Aromatherapy Putty when I take the children I work with through this meditation, but you could use another handheld object, like a plush toy.
Susan Nelson, Wellnessed founder and play therapist takes you through a guided mediation in this video
Word Games to Create Balance in the Brain
If you or your child with autism are experiencing a particularly challenging time - perhaps feeling very anxious or worried - there are a couple of things you can try.
When we are anxious we are operating from the amygdala. This is the part of your brain that gets activated when we think we are in danger. An activated amygdala releases the hormones cortisol and adrenaline and we experience “fight or flight”. This response is great when we are faced with a danger - like being chased by a bear. When the danger is not a bear, but the thoughts in our heads that we feel stuck in, we become stranded in an anxious uncomfortable place.
One method to help your brain get “unstuck” is to engage in an activity that helps your brain shift from the feeling part (the amygdala) to the thinking part (the prefrontal cortex). We accomplish this with a task that requires some thought.
For our children, the could mean we play games like:
- I Spy
- Rhyming Games
- Word Games
An example of a word game I have used in the past with my people with ASD is starting with a sentence such as, “I’m going on a picnic and I’m bringing apples”. The next person repeats what you’re bringing on the picnic and adds their food that starts with the letter B, the next person the letter C and so on.
Reading to Release the Imagination
Don’t underestimate the power of reading a book. Reading can be very regulating for ourselves and for our kids. A good story transports you out of your own world and thoughts for a time. I work with children on the autism spectrum on a regular basis and they have called me when their anxiety levels are spiking. Many times, I read a chapter of Harry Potter (or their book of choice) until the feeling has dissipated.
Bilateral Stimulation to Overcome Anxiety
Another great thing to try when feeling stressed is Bilateral Stimulation. There are three types
Bilateral Stimulation helps neutralize strong emotions allowing you to feel more relaxed. One theory why this works is related to the orienting reflex. This reflex is the natural tendency of our nervous system to orient or pay attention to a new sound or stimulus in our environment.
In simplest terms, bilateral stimulation keeps your brain shifting from left to right. The constant shifting of your brain from left to right makes it harder to focus on whatever you were worried about and gives your brain a chance to break out of your worried or anxious thinking pattern.
Examples of auditory bilateral stimulation can be found on Youtube and is simply called Bilateral Music:
You can also find bilateral stimulation music on Spotify.
You can provide tactile stimulation for your child by first squeezing their right hand, then their left, or have them hold a ball of our aromatherapy putty in each hand and instruct them to alternate squeezing the putty in each of their hands.
Purposeful Activities for Self-Regulation
Engaging in purposeful activities can be incredibly regulating. From personal experience, the days I have actually gotten out of my pajamas and done something purposeful I’ve generally felt better! Having said that I also think there is something to be said for having days here and there when we stay in our pajamas and binge watch a really good show!
A few ideas of purposeful activities you can try with your kids include:
- Puzzles - I’ve recently found sticker puzzles and these are great too.
- Cooking/baking - find a new recipe to try together and have them help with the measuring and mixing.
- Go outside - Use sidewalk chalk (check out our aromatherapy sidewalk chalk!) and make an obstacle course to challenge each other.
- Order seeds online - plant, care for and watch together as they germinate and grow.
- Coloring is also a great way to regulate!