How to Calm a Child with Autism?

Discover effective strategies to calm a child with autism. From sensory play to visual supports, help your child find peace amidst overstimulation.

steven zauderer
Steven Zauderer
February 16, 2024
min read

Calming Strategies for Children with Autism

When it comes to supporting children with autism, implementing effective calming strategies is crucial for promoting relaxation, reducing anxiety, and fostering a sense of stability. These strategies play a vital role in both the home and classroom settings, providing support for children with autism and helping them navigate their daily lives.

Importance of Calming Strategies

Calming strategies are essential for children with autism, as they can help them relax, decrease tantrums, and increase peace and harmony in the family and classroom [1]. Individuals with autism often face unique challenges, such as sensory sensitivities, difficulties with social interactions, and communication barriers, which can contribute to heightened anxiety. By implementing effective calming strategies, parents and educators can provide a supportive environment that helps children regulate their emotions and reduce anxiety levels.

Benefits of Calming Strategies in the Classroom

In the classroom, calming strategies are crucial for providing a calm, structured, and relaxing environment for students with autism [1]. These strategies help prevent stress and difficult behaviors, allowing students to focus, engage, and participate in learning activities. By implementing calming techniques, educators can create a supportive atmosphere that promotes a sense of stability and enhances the overall well-being of students with autism.

Implementing effective calming strategies involves a variety of approaches, including sensory-based interventions, visual supports, breathing and movement techniques, and practical tips for creating a calm environment. By combining these strategies, parents and educators can help children with autism navigate their daily lives with greater ease and reduce anxiety levels.

In the following sections, we will explore different calming strategies, including sensory-based interventions, visual supports, breathing and movement techniques, and practical tips, to provide parents and educators with a comprehensive understanding of how to support and calm children with autism.

Sensory-Based Calming Strategies

For children with autism, who may struggle with processing sensory information, sensory-based calming strategies can be highly beneficial in helping them manage overstimulation and promote relaxation. Two effective sensory-based calming strategies are sensory play activities and deep pressure techniques.

Sensory Play Activities

Sensory play activities involve stimulating the five senses (sound, sight, smell, taste, and touch) and are particularly important for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). These activities not only provide a fun and engaging experience but also help retrain the brain's response to sensory information and improve coping skills.

Sensory play activities have a positive impact on various aspects of a child's development, including cognitive, emotional, physical, social, and communication development. Some examples of sensory play activities suitable for children with autism include:

  • Finger painting and footprint painting: These activities allow children to express themselves creatively and can be done with paper and easily washable materials to minimize mess.
  • Homemade slime: Making slime using cornflour and water can provide a super sensory experience. Adding food coloring and glitter can enhance the sensory stimulation [3].
  • Sensory ocean: Creating a sensory ocean using a shallow storage container with sand, water, shells, and toy fish can be a fun and engaging sensory activity.

Deep Pressure Techniques

Deep pressure techniques involve the application of gentle, firm pressure to the body, which can have a calming effect on children with autism. These techniques provide a sense of security and can help regulate sensory input.

Some effective deep pressure techniques for calming children with autism include:

  • Deep pressure squeezes: Applying gentle pressure through deep hugs or squeezes can provide a comforting sensory input.
  • Rolling a ball over the child's body: Having the child lie on the floor while an adult rolls a ball over their body can provide deep pressure and a calming sensation.
  • Using a body sock or lycra material: Wrapping the child in a body sock or lycra material can create a gentle, even pressure that promotes relaxation and reduces anxiety.

In addition to sensory play activities and deep pressure techniques, it's important to individualize the strategies based on the child's preferences and sensory needs. Hand fidgets, such as play dough and Thera-putty, and gentle massages on the head, feet, arms, and back can also be effective in providing calming sensory input for children with autism.

By incorporating sensory-based calming strategies into daily routines, parents can provide children with autism the tools they need to manage overstimulation, promote relaxation, and enhance their overall well-being.

Visual Supports for Calming

When it comes to calming children with autism, visual supports play a crucial role. They provide clear and tangible cues that help children understand and navigate their environment. In this section, we will explore two effective visual supports for calming children with autism: social stories and visual schedules.

Social Stories

Social stories are a commonly used intervention for children with autism. They are short, personalized stories that describe a particular social situation and provide guidance on how to behave in that situation [5]. These stories are typically written in the first person, present tense, and from the perspective of the child. They use simple language, clear and specific instructions, and visual supports like pictures or drawings to enhance understanding and memory retention.

Social stories can be used to teach children with autism a wide range of social skills, such as greeting others, taking turns, waiting in line, or dealing with changes in routine [5]. By addressing these skills in a structured and visual manner, social stories help children with autism better comprehend and apply the information. It is important to individualize social stories to meet the specific needs and preferences of each child, considering their age, developmental level, and interests.

To effectively utilize social stories, it is best to introduce them in a calm and supportive environment. This ensures that the child is receptive to the information and can focus on the content of the story. Reading the story together with the child and engaging in a discussion can further reinforce understanding and promote active participation [5].

Visual Schedules

Visual schedules are another valuable tool for calming children with autism. These schedules provide predictability and help children understand and anticipate daily activities and transitions, reducing anxiety and promoting a sense of control [6]. Visual schedules can be created using pictures, symbols, or written words, depending on the child's level of understanding and communication skills.

A visual schedule provides a visual representation of the sequence of activities throughout the day. It helps children with autism understand what is expected of them, reduces uncertainty, and facilitates smooth transitions between tasks or locations. When creating a visual schedule, it is important to involve the child, allowing them to actively participate in selecting and arranging the visual cues. This promotes a sense of ownership and increases engagement with the schedule.

Visual cues, such as pictures or symbols, can also be used independently to support specific instructions or tasks. These cues help children with autism understand and follow instructions, enhancing their ability to engage in activities and reducing frustration. Additionally, visual timers can be incorporated into the visual schedule to help children manage the passage of time and understand when a particular activity or task will end. This reduces uncertainty and promotes patience [6].

By utilizing visual supports like social stories and visual schedules, parents can provide children with autism the structure and guidance they need to calm down and manage their behavior effectively. These supports enhance communication, comprehension, and predictability, creating a supportive environment for children with autism to thrive.

Breathing and Movement Techniques

For children with autism, implementing effective calming strategies is essential for managing overstimulation and promoting a sense of calm. Breathing and movement techniques have proven to be beneficial in helping children with autism regulate their emotions and reduce stress. In this section, we will explore two specific techniques: deep breathing exercises and yoga/exercise.

Deep Breathing Exercises

Teaching deep breathing techniques to children with autism can be a valuable tool in their self-calming arsenal. Deep breathing exercises can help children regulate their emotions and promote relaxation. By focusing on slow, deep breaths, children can activate their parasympathetic nervous system, which helps counteract the fight-or-flight response and induce a state of calm.

There are various deep breathing exercises that can be taught to children with autism. One simple technique is belly breathing, where the child places their hand on their belly and takes slow, deep breaths, feeling their belly rise and fall with each breath. Another technique is square breathing, where the child visualizes drawing a square and takes four slow breaths, with each side of the square representing an inhalation or exhalation.

Encouraging children to practice deep breathing exercises regularly, especially during times of heightened stress or sensory overload, can empower them to self-regulate and manage their emotions effectively.

Yoga and Exercise

Incorporating yoga and exercise into a child's routine can have significant benefits for individuals with autism. Yoga combines deep breathing, grounding, meditation, and movement, providing a holistic approach to calming and focusing the mind [8].

Yoga poses, such as Child's Pose, Downward-Facing Dog, or Tree Pose, can help children with autism find a sense of calmness and promote body awareness. These poses, combined with deep breathing techniques, can aid in reducing anxiety and improving concentration.

Engaging in regular exercise and movement activities is also beneficial for children with autism. Rhythmic activities like rocking, swinging, or using a sensory swing can help regulate sensory input and promote relaxation [7]. Outdoor activities, such as running, biking, or playing in nature, provide an opportunity for children to burn off excess energy and promote calmness [8].

By incorporating deep breathing exercises, yoga, and exercise into a child's routine, parents can help them develop effective coping mechanisms and promote a sense of calmness and well-being. It is important to tailor these techniques to the child's individual needs and preferences, ensuring a safe and enjoyable experience while fostering self-regulation and emotional well-being.

Practical Tips for Calming

When it comes to calming a child with autism, there are practical strategies that parents can employ to create a soothing environment and provide structure. These tips can help reduce overstimulation and promote a sense of calmness for children on the autism spectrum.

Creating a Calm Environment

Providing a quiet and calm environment is essential for individuals with autism. This helps reduce sensory overload and promotes relaxation, leading to improved self-calming [7]. Here are some practical tips for creating a calm environment:

  • Minimize noise: Reduce background noise by closing doors, using soundproofing materials, or using white noise machines to create a more peaceful atmosphere.
  • Dim the lights: Soft lighting or using dimmer switches can help create a soothing environment. Consider using blackout curtains or blinds to block out excessive external light.
  • Declutter the space: Clearing the space of unnecessary objects can help reduce visual distractions and create a more organized and calming environment.
  • Provide a safe space: Designate a specific area or room where the child can retreat to when they need a break. This space should be comfortable and equipped with sensory items that the child finds calming, such as soft blankets or weighted objects.

Having a Game Plan

Having a game plan ahead of time can help individuals with autism feel more comfortable and provide structure during stressful events. Here are some practical tips for creating a game plan:

  • Establish a pre-meltdown routine: Recognize the signs of stress or overload in your child and develop a routine that helps them calm down before reaching a meltdown point. This routine can include activities such as deep breathing exercises, sensory play, or engaging in a preferred calming activity.
  • Communication plan: Develop a communication plan with your child to help them express their feelings and needs. This can involve using visual supports, such as picture cards or communication boards, to facilitate effective communication during times of distress.
  • Use distractions: During stressful situations, provide distractions that redirect attention to more positive or engaging stimuli. This can include bringing up a favorite subject, redirecting attention to nearby stores or items, or engaging in enjoyable activities that help shift focus away from the stressor.

By creating a calm environment and having a game plan in place, parents can effectively support their child with autism in managing overstimulation and promoting a sense of calm. It's important to tailor these strategies to the specific needs and preferences of the child, as each individual with autism may respond differently to calming techniques. With patience, understanding, and consistency, parents can help their child navigate overstimulation and foster a greater sense of well-being.

Using Visual Supports for Calming

Visual supports are highly effective tools for calming children with autism. These supports provide visual cues and timers that help children understand instructions, manage time, and reduce frustration. In this section, we will explore two essential visual supports for calming: visual cues and visual timers.

Visual Cues

Visual cues, such as pictures or symbols, play a crucial role in supporting children with autism. They provide a visual representation of tasks or expectations, helping children understand and follow instructions. Visual cues enhance their ability to engage in tasks and reduce frustration.

For example, a visual cue can be a picture of a toothbrush to indicate that it is time to brush their teeth or a symbol of a bed to signal bedtime. These visual cues provide a clear and consistent reminder of what is expected, making transitions and daily routines smoother for the child.

When using visual cues, it is essential to ensure that they are tailored to the child's specific needs and preferences. The cues should be age-appropriate, visually clear, and easily understandable. They can be created using visual schedules, picture cards, or even digital apps designed for visual supports.

Visual Timers

Visual timers are another valuable tool for calming children with autism. These timers help children manage the passage of time and understand when a particular activity or task will end. By providing a visual representation of time, visual timers reduce uncertainty and promote patience.

A visual timer can be a clock with a countdown display or a sand timer with colored sand that gradually empties. These timers help children understand how much time is remaining for a particular activity, reducing anxiety and supporting self-regulation.

When using visual timers, it is important to select one that is suitable for the child's developmental level and understanding. Set clear expectations by explaining how the timer works and what it signifies. This helps the child anticipate and mentally prepare for transitions or changes in activities.

Incorporating visual cues and visual timers into daily routines and activities can greatly benefit children with autism, providing them with clear guidance, reducing anxiety, and promoting a sense of control. These visual supports can be personalized to meet the child's specific needs and preferences, ensuring their effectiveness in calming and supporting the child's well-being.








steven zauderer

CEO of CrossRiverTherapy - a national ABA therapy company based in the USA.

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