Monday, September 8, 2014

Decompressing After School: Students with an Autism Spectrum Disorder

For children and teens with an autism spectrum disorder

The start of the school year brings many more demands on our children than they typically face during the summer. They now have more non-preferred tasks and activities, longer more structured days and a return to waking early and going to bed early.  For many children with ASD this transition is, to say the least, challenging. Many expend a lot of energy to just “hold it together” and make it through the school day while clearly feeling overwhelmed.

When children with ASD get home from “working all day” they need to “decompress” just like us.  How often have you gotten home from a full day and thought, “I just need five minutes to decompress.”  After taking time to regroup you feel better and are able to reconnect at home.  Well, children with ASD are similar. 

When they get home, we want our kids to let us know how the day went and then to do their homework (to get it out of the way).  However, for some children this may work but for many it may add fuel to the significant stress they are already feeling. You may wonder why they are acting like little time bombs waiting to explode at the most trivial request from you.  It’s not you.  They need to decompress.

Teaching your child ways to decompress and re-energize is a critical life skill.  Ways for you to facilitate this process will depend on your child.  In general, however, there are several things you can do.  Here are some additional useful strategies:

1.     Time is key

We suggest you give your child 30-40 minutes right after coming home to wind down.  Do not put any demands on him or her during this time other than (having previewed this beforehand) where to put their school packs, shoes and jackets upon arriving at home. Keeping demands to a minimum can aide a child’s already over-loaded system to calm down.

2.     Keep questions to a minimum

In general keep questions to a minimum unless your child chooses to engage with you.  We are curious and want to know what happened at school so we ask a lot of open-ended questions.  These can put more pressure on a child when the child just wants to “let it go”.   

3.     When it’s time to ask questions keep them concise and shift focus to positive

Instead of an open ended question like “how was school day or what did you do today?” ask instead “Tell me one thing you were grateful for today” or “Tell me one thing that made you happy or smile, or “tell me your high and your low.”  Shifting the focus to moments of gratitude/happiness instead of dwelling on the negative can in itself help the child decompress.  

4.     Keeping demands to a minimum

Have a snack ready but don’t force it and let the child engage in a preferred activity.  For those who come home very wound up let them have some outdoor play or movement; others may need quiet music, reading or to be alone. Sometimes electronics or TV can be a decompression tool.  Sometimes “zoning out” for a set amount of time is enough to “clear the head.”  Know your child and his/her rhythms and what works to help them regroup.  But stay away from putting increased demands on your child right away.

Professionally guided strategies at Aspire

At Aspire, stress management is one of our main areas of focus.  No matter what program or service you enroll your child in at Aspire a stress-management component will be included.  Our goal is to help children understand how their mind/brain-body is connected.  The more a child can understand his own body the better he will be at recognizing signs of stress. 

Our new yoga and mind/body groups for children, teens or young adults use many of the following strategies and can support your efforts at home: 

  • We help our participants to understand their body and emotions -how it feels, looks and sounds.  For instance when is it moving too fast/too slow, when it is tired/hungry; happy/sad; or angry/scared.  
  • We teach children about breathing, paying attention to the present moment and not dwelling in the past. Mindfulness is a way to be present in this moment while increasing attention without judgment to our thoughts.
  • Many children love to engage in mindfulness activities.  We conduct many of these.  For instance, we’ll do mindful listening and then talk about what sounds we heard; or we’ll engage the children in mindful seeing/drawing.  The possibilities are endless.
  • Movement and relaxation through yoga is another great decompression tool that we use at Aspire. 
  • We also help our participants develop and practice positive self-talk.

Lastly, anytime you can shift your child’s or your own energy from negative to positive decompression happens.  If you can get your child to smile or laugh, you are well on your way to helping them decompress.  If one has joy, gratitude and happiness or even silliness in one’s heart one can’t be stressed! Humor is such a powerful tool.  Try being silly with your child it may be just what he needs to decompress after a long “work day”!  Maybe you too!

 

To learn more about Aspire’s Mind/Body and Discovery Yoga Programs for children, teens and young adults visit:

http://www.massgeneral.org/children/aspire/overview.aspx

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