Help Your Autistic Family Member Stay Calm When Stress Levels Rise

Megaphone Too Loud
Megaphone Too Loud. Getty

Looking for some quick "hacks" to make life easier and pleasanter for a person with autism and his or her family?  Try these ideas.

Need More Sensory Input? Try This!

Many people with autism crave sensory input to help them stay calm and focused.  If an autistic person in your life is feeling overwhelmed or out of control, and is pacing, flapping, and otherwise stimming, it is often helpful to provide whole-body pressure (pacing and flapping may also indicate positive excitement, so be sure to check in before taking any action).


The well-known autistic spokesperson Temple Grandin actually created a "squeeze machine" to help provide gentle, consistent pressure -- but you may not have such a machine on hand. 

If you don't, and the autistic child or adult in your life consents to these ideas, consider rolling the person up tightly in a blanket like a "burrito," or putting the person on a cushion or beanbag chair and pressing down firmly but consistently using another cushion or beanbag.  Be sure that the person for whom you are providing the pressure feels positive about the experience, and respond immediately when he or she is ready to have the pressure removed.

Too Much Sensory Input? These Ideas May Help

Some people with autism are easily overwhelmed by sounds, light, smells, and physical sensations.  But you're headed to the mall or the supermarket or a big box store where sensory overload is just part of the package.

  What can you do about that?  Here are some easy solutions:

  • Leave your autistic family member at home if there is adequate supervision and/or he can look after himself.  Why make it an issue?
  • If you must bring an autistic person along, and they're easily bothered by too much sensory input, keep the visit short, sweet, and to the point.  No browsing.
  • If you really must spend significant time with an autistic person in a setting that's rife with sensory "stuff," provide sunglasses, sound blocking headphones, or preferred music through headphones.

Heading Into Uncharted Waters?  Here Are Some Tips to Keep Calm

In general, people with autism far prefer predictability to spontaneity, and schedules to open-ended days.  And, in general, it's pretty easy to provide that kind of life.  But not always.  Sometimes, you're heading to an event you're not running, a vacation that's not fully planned, or a life event (a wedding, illness, divorce, etc.) that require flexibility on everyone's part.

When life starts to become more chaotic, many people on the spectrum feel the stress, and behave accordingly.  Melt downs and stims, while they're understandable under these circumstances, will only make matters worse for everyone. 

How can you plan for the unexpected?  Here are a few tips:

  • Minimize chaos when it's possible. If you're planning a vacation and don't want to have every moment planned, provide your autistic loved one with as much information as possible about your specific plans and expectations, and let them know about unplanned down time.  Use visual tools like maps, photos, videos, etc., to let them know what's coming (as is appropriate for their age and developmental level). 
  • Be sure to have favorite videos, books, or other recreational items available for unplanned "down" times (waiting in a lobby, sitting in a car, etc.).
  • If you plan to go to restaurants where his/her favorite foods may not be available, call ahead and ask if you can pack a single meal along; there's a good chance they'll say yes.  Now is not the time to insist on "trying just one new thing," unless you're prepared for potential fallout.  It's also a good idea to pack along favorite foods and snacks if you're not quite sure when or where the next meal will be.
  • Think ahead, and ask questions, so you can plan for your autistic family member's schedule to the best of your ability.  If you're staying with family, will there be a quiet room or space you can set aside for him?  If there's going to be chaotic family goings on, can someone be available to help your autistic family member stay calm?  Pre-planning is well worth the effort -- for everyone's sake!

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