Saturday, September 10, 2011

Calming Techniques for the Special Needs Child

This is a "best of the best" article. Check back here after September 15 for more articles by other authors on this topic.

There is a saying about Aspergers which I believe applies equally well to most, if not all, other special needs - to paraphrase; "if you've met one person with special needs, you've met ONE person needs".

Just as all special needs people are different, the calming techniques required are also quite different. Techniques which calm one person may simply infuriate another.


Trial and Error
In this post, I plan to cover a few approaches but the application of these is very much a matter of trial and error. If your actions seem to be worsening a situation then stop and try a different approach.


Getting Attention
No technique is going to work unless you have attention. It doesn't have to be total attention, part attention is fine. Don't forget too that many special needs children have issues with eye contact, so "attention" doesn't necessarily mean "looking at you". In fact holding your hand out wide and saying "look at my hand" can often be more effective. In particular, if your child is holding an object which is causing an issue (Nintendo DS, I'm looking at you) then it's imperative that he puts it down before you try talking to them.

A Calming Influence
When my eldest son goes into a meltdown state, he responds best to a calm voice. I simply repeat reassuring phrases such as "it's alright" and "that's ok" in a quiet calm voice.

He'll usually try to shout over me but I won't engage him in conversation when he's melting down. Conversing with a melting down individuals will only bring insults and hurt which will be regretted later.


Touching
You may be tempted to pat the anxious or otherwise stressed individual on the back or arm. Be very sure before doing this as many individuals on the spectrum have issues with touch. Back off immediately if the child reacts badly and if possible, get them to come to you rather than approaching them. Putting your arms open wide and suggesting that a hug might help is a good way to do this.

If you're dealing with an adult, make sure that you ask them for permission first.


Authority
Some children react better to authority voices than to calm ones. An "authority voice" is always calm and mostly emotionless" but it has a stern edge to it and carries orders. For example; "Put that down - right now".

Some children react to a countdown, "three, two, one" but others will continually wait until the last number or will even worsen their misbehaviour as the countdown progresses knowing that so long as they stop before it ends, they'll be ok.

If your child is doing this, then the countdown method is not working and should be discontinued.


Shouting and Negative Reinforcement
Shouting almost never works unless perhaps your special needs child has a hearing loss. Seriously though, shouting can sometimes make you, the parent, feel better but most of the time it only worsens the issue.

Shouting at children only teaches them that shouting can be used to get others to do what you want. Shouting parents are more likely to have shouting children though of course, shouting behaviours can be learned in the playground too.

I'm not going to say much about violent methods of control here except that fear and violence usually bring the opposite of calm - and when they do produce calm, it's not a good kind of calm.


Following Through
For some parents, calming times are "promise times" and parents will often promise their kids "the earth" for just a little calm.

If you promise your kids something, then follow through and deliver on it - good or bad. If you say "no dessert tonight" then don't give in later. Similarly, if you promise a toy for good behaviour, then you should provide it. Being consistent and predictable will lead to a much calmer life.

One thing to remember though, promise easy and inexpensive things like a walk in the park. It doesn't take much for these promises to become routine and I know parents who have to buy toys and/or sweets everytime they go out shopping.


Relating
When my kids are having a tough time, I'll often talk about my childhood. For example, if they're being bullied, I'll talk about when I was bullied at school. It's important to keep things positive but you shouldn't try to make out that things were tougher "in your day" or that you were a hero.

The object of the conversation is to relate - not make your kids feel more inadequate.


Comedic Performances
For the most part, reacting with humour to any meltdown, anxiety or stress event is a big "no no". While these outbursts may look like simple temper or "cry-baby" issues, the fears, anxieties and reactions of special needs children are very real to them. Not only is it impolite to laugh but it's also damaging to a child's self-esteem to reduce their issues to comedy. It is never ok to laugh at these children.

Of course, there are occasions during panic attacks and meltdowns where a bit of impromptu comedy can work wonders. In particular, where a distraction is needed to prevent fears from building up. For example, while waiting in a queue at an amusement park.


Out of Sight
If an object or a person is driving an issue, then it's important to get them/it out of sight as quickly as possible. If the child is having an issue with a computer game, then simply talking to them with the game playing in the background isn't going to help matters. Get them out of the house and onto outdoor play equipment. If their issue isn't staring them in the face, they'll get over it more quickly.

Keeping things out of sight is particularly important where meltdowns are concerned. I find, as an adult that if I'm overly stressed, the best thing to do is to be alone. If the child is too distressed to go into their room then it helps if those around him retreat to another area (or at least avoid looking at the him).


Changing Plans
Don't be afraid to change plans. My eldest son recently went on a caves tour which ended in a boat ride. He became agitated about riding in a boat in the dark and refused to board. We changed plans to allow him to walk back through the caves with a guide. As a parent, you need to pick your battles. Sometimes you can convince a child to conquer their fears - and sometimes you can't. When you can't, you change the plan.


Being Prepared
My last point is simply to be prepared. Try to see the danger signs before your child begins to stress out about them. If you can jump in and defuse the potential situation before it escalates into one, then you'll have saved everyone a great deal of trouble. For example, when eating at a friend's house, consider asking the friend to let you prepare your child's plate. That way you can ensure that it only has the things that they'll eat on it - and you can make sure that no foods are touching each other.

Being prepared is probably the best form of avoidance.

10 comments:

alisonwells said...

Thank you, this is very practical and really makes sense to the situations we find ourselves in.

Amy said...

The idea of not looking the person in the idea is what really works for me. Also not engaging verbally.

We've run into a snag with the idea of putting things out-of-sight. Now our son thinks we don't trust him. I think he's going to be a lawyer!

Danette said...

Gavin, what a great list of techniques. Thanks for sharing all of them!

evedwards said...

Indeed a good article. :)

I've been going through panic attacks from time to time. My mom game me breathing techniques which calmed me down a bit. Trying to remain tranquil through the toughest situations is also a big deal for me...

martianne said...

Great suggestions! Thanks!

Bronwyn said...

What a fantastic article! I think having multiple techniques in our tool kit is essential. Thank you for sharing them all.

I have a blophop for parents of children (and older people) with Autism (including Aspergers & PDDNOS). I would love to share your insightful posts with my readers. http://www.athomemum.com/LifeOnTheSpectrum

Gavin Bollard said...

@Bronwyn; by all means share away.

Anonymous said...

Reading your pages on meldown and shutdowns has opened my eyes. I'm undiagnosed, but I have a very strong suspect of being an Aspie (on the test you suggest I scored 124 once then 116 another time, not very high but still above 100).
I did not know that meltdowns and shutdowns where also part of the symptoms, I had both as a child, I have them occasionally now, and reading your blog has been a revelation.
As a child I had major episodes of crying desperately and screaming, "you cried so much that your father had to stop the car and slapped you untill HE calmed down", as my maternal grandmother put it. I usually cried untill I sort of collapsed and went to sleep. I sometime "escaped" under the bed or into corners (once I closed myself in a cupboard) as enclose spaces make me feel safe and protected. My parents approach to my "being a nasty child" was shouting and sometime slapping me, then, especially my mom, trying to hug me to make peace. They really did not know what to do, in general I was a quiet girl, a "little scientist",with many interests (one at a time....all what you can read on dinsaurs, then collecting minerals and fossils, then reading all the medical enciclopedia, etc etc) They thought that my occasional weirdness(es) derived from being an "only child", a somewhat exotic creature where I grow up...

I wanted to stop crying, I wanted to stop feeling utterly miserable, they thougth I was being a stubborn, horrible child. I tended to "melt" just before or after important events, if I was worried about something or tired then small things could precipitate me into becoming a screaming little horror...
I wish pages like this were there 35 years ago, I really wish. Nowadays I'm rather happily living as "NT" but I do suffer from depression, and low self estime. And sometime I panic for silly things. And I do have rage issues, I get a red fog and then need to kick things, or punch walls, it's sometime pretty out of proportion to the triggering problem, it just seems too much, the pain from hitting things seems to help getting me back to the planet. And yes, now I'm limping because one of hte things I hit happened to be a very solid and heavvy firedoor..

mmyersslp said...

I have two more to add to your list. I find it often helps to "value the child's communication" also. When dealing with a meltdown just this morning, I got my whiteboard and wrote down verbatim everything the child was saying so he could see me and the words (whether it made any sense to me or not) and calmly repeated/read the words he'd said. He started to calm immediately and paid attention to what I was writing. Soon I was able to add the words I needed to say to the board (no hitting please, find a safe seat, drink water, work is gone, etc.) and he was able to process the written words/visual and get himself regulated again. I have used this technique a number of times with various children and it is usually effective. Children need to feel that their communications are valued. I also find that if I write down whatever the child says (and some of it may be jibberish), sprinkled in amongst all the words is usually the real problem that the child was unable to verbalize to me so I'm actually able to analyze what has caused the difficulty in order to problem solve. With a nonverbal child, I draw pictures (not good ones, but they seem to be adequate) to do the same thing. Depending on the child, I may or may not add written words to my pictures. I'm not sure why this works so well...I think it's a combination of distracting the child and the child realizing that his communication is valued, plus the fact that the child knows I'm trying to help him solve it. These kids are actually amazingly accepting of our ignorance when you think about it. Another thing I do early on with any child is I observe and note what his "self-regulators" are and then I employ them to help him to calm down. A child in meltdown usually cannot think about how to calm down so I've found if I can employ self regulating techniques, then the child can gradually take over and calm himself. For example, self regulating techniques are usually rhythmical and repetitious (flapping hands, chewing, flipping pages in a book, drinking sips of water, tapping, etc.). When I had a child in meltdown once, I just calmly sat beside him, grabbed a book, and started turning the pages because I knew that was a self-regulator he used. Within a few short minutes, he sat up, grabbed the book and started turning the pages himself. A few minutes later, the meltdown was over. These are just two more strategies to add to your repertoire which have worked for me: value the communication and identify how the child self-regulates so you can employ that when needed.

mmyersslp said...

I have two more to add to your list. I find it often helps to "value the child's communication" also. When dealing with a meltdown just this morning, I got my whiteboard and wrote down verbatim everything the child was saying so he could see me and the words (whether it made any sense to me or not) and calmly repeated/read the words he'd said. He started to calm immediately and paid attention to what I was writing. Soon I was able to add the words I needed to say to the board (no hitting please, find a safe seat, drink water, work is gone, etc.) and he was able to process the written words/visual and get himself regulated again. I have used this technique a number of times with various children and it is usually effective. Children need to feel that their communications are valued. I also find that if I write down whatever the child says (and some of it may be jibberish), sprinkled in amongst all the words is usually the real problem that the child was unable to verbalize to me so I'm actually able to analyze what has caused the difficulty in order to problem solve. With a nonverbal child, I draw pictures (not good ones, but they seem to be adequate) to do the same thing. Depending on the child, I may or may not add written words to my pictures. I'm not sure why this works so well...I think it's a combination of distracting the child and the child realizing that his communication is valued, plus the fact that the child knows I'm trying to help him solve it. These kids are actually amazingly accepting of our ignorance when you think about it. Another thing I do early on with any child is I observe and note what his "self-regulators" are and then I employ them to help him to calm down. A child in meltdown usually cannot think about how to calm down so I've found if I can employ self regulating techniques, then the child can gradually take over and calm himself. For example, self regulating techniques are usually rhythmical and repetitious (flapping hands, chewing, flipping pages in a book, drinking sips of water, tapping, etc.). When I had a child in meltdown once, I just calmly sat beside him, grabbed a book, and started turning the pages because I knew that was a self-regulator he used. Within a few short minutes, he sat up, grabbed the book and started turning the pages himself. A few minutes later, the meltdown was over. These are just two more strategies to add to your repertoire which have worked for me: value the communication and identify how the child self-regulates so you can employ that when needed.