Helping Your Autistic Child Work Through Their Fear of Storms
We all know that when summer approaches so do those summer storms. You know the ones with lightening, thunder and black outs. Many of us parents of Autistic and special needs children find that our children are especially scared of storms. Their fears overtake them and sometimes it becomes too much and they meltdown. Nothing is worse than a meltdown, at night, when you have candles lit, it is storming, and you have no power. Here are some great pointers for how to calm your child during the storm seasons, or really to help you work your Autistic child through any fear.
Provide calm support
You want to help your Autistic child to feel safe. That is the ultimate goal during storm seasons. So, don’t undermine the power of your words and your actions. When your child, whether they are special needs or not, does confront a fear and hears your comforting, “It will be okay,” he or she will feel more secure in the fact that he/she can come to you in other trying times as well. “Your words of support will become a model your child can use himself.” Per Michele Borba, Ed.D., an internationally renowned consultant, educational psychologist and recipient of the National Educator Award, our kids copy how we cope with our fears. So be the example of how to handle your own worries that you want your child to copy. She also recommends that you keep yourself strong. “Fears are caught by children or passed down. Keep your worries or pessimism in check especially during a tragedy or after a trauma.” It is certain that storms can cause trauma.
Watch out for triggers and stressors
First let’s talk about how to calm your Autistic child if they fear storms. Per Angelina M., who works as a “Board-Certified Behavior Analyst, specializing in assessing and treating children and adolescents with autism, down-syndrome, and other developmental delays” here are some important pointers for easing the fear of storms for Autistic children. First, watch out for “Perseveration” or repeating the same thing over and over. It is a VERY common issue among the Autism community.
It is important to point out that often, children with Autism will “perseverate on stressors as a way of coping with their overwhelming anxiety.” This may be continuously talking about the stressor, researching the stressor, or even acting out the stressor. If you notice your child doing this make sure to validate his/her emotions. As Angelina said, “Put words to his/her emotions. Ask him/her how he/she feels, or you can label it for them, ‘I can see that you feel scared,’ ‘I know you’re afraid,’ or ‘You seem very nervous.’”
Instill a sense of security in your child
It is important to also have a sense of security instilled in your child if you are aware that they are afraid of storms. Talk to them about storms. Reassure them during the storm seasons that you will protect them. Be sure to go over your family’s protection plan with them weekly. Make sure though that you are limiting your reminding about reassurance to him/her to once per day. He/She will “likely carry on and seek further reassurance, but you don’t want to reinforce this repetitive conversation.” Tell him/her once, “Remember what I told you, you will be safe.”
Or it is suggested that you can even have him/her repeat back to you what you’ve already told them about what you do when storms come. For example, “We talked about this yesterday. Do you remember what I told you? What will we do when the storm comes?” Once he/she recites back to you what the plan is you can confirm what they have said and then move on. No further conversation about it; not even telling him “We already talked about that,” or “Yes, you’re right. We will drive away.” Just simply redirect “all further discussion of the storm.”
One of my favorite suggestions and one that is from my own toolkit is to give your Autistic child an alternative way to cope with storms-such as a social story. You can find social stories to print online or at your local library. You can even purchase them on Amazon or simply write out your own that details “some information about the storm, what to do when it comes, how to feel when it comes, how to handle those feelings, etc.”
It may have pages such as: “Where we live there are lots of storms. Some storms we have had are _____. When we have tornados/hurricanes and the weather gets windy, rainy, and there is thunder. Include lines such as: “Thinking of the storm can be scary. It’s okay to feel scared. When I feel scared I can tell somebody, like my mom. My mom has told me that she will protect me from the storm. If the weather gets really bad, we will drive away from the storm and come back once it’s over. This will keep me safe.” Remind him/her to read his/her story when he/she gets stuck on perseverating on the storm.
Remember that “telling stories, acting out situations or reading books about a particular scary situation can help kids overcome fears.” The strategy is called “Bibliotherapy,” or healing with books. It’s helpful because kids often identify with the character who shares the same anxiety. Putting the fear into words can help reduce the child’s concern.
Share worries as a family
Per Dr. Michele Borba, another step to take is to “encourage your child to talk about his/her fears.” He points out that putting a worry into words makes it more manageable. Your goal is to “catch” their worries early before they blow out of proportion and become full-fledge fears. Be sure they know you will listen. Remember that you can then “not only reassure your child but also clarify any misconceptions and answer questions.”
Practice relaxation strategies
relaxation strategies could help.” Practice relaxation strategies over and over until it becomes almost “automatic” to your Autistic child. You might need to put a picture reminder on the fridge or next to your child’s bed. The trick is for your child to use that strategy the moment the worry comes before it builds.
Here are some strategic tips from Dr. Michele Borba for coping with fears:
-Tell him/her the moment he/she starts to feel tense to “imagine he/she is floating peacefully on a cloud or lying quietly on a beach.”
-Taking slow deep breaths also reduces anxiety.
-Teach your child to pretend that his/her lungs are balloons filled to the brim and to slowly let the air out of them as his/her fears go away.
-Help your teen fill his/her MP3 player with more soothing relaxing music that works for him/her.
Ask for hugs!
Another great tip from Michele Borba is to hug it out. It is almost universal that when our kids are troubled one of our natural parenting instincts kick in and we hug them to try to comfort them. Research finds that our instincts are right! Hugs “actually help reduce our kids’ worries and calm them.” Teach your kid to say, “I need a hug!” Better yet, do family back rubs – or shoulder rubs for those teens who feel they’re “too grown up.”
Put your kid in the "driver seat"
It is pointed out that research shows feeling as if you have some control over a situation helps reduce the worry. So, empower your child by helping him/her develop their own fear-reducing plan. Start by identifying the fear.
Problem: “The lightning strikes make weird shadows on my wall and make me scared to sleep in the dark.”
“What might help need you feel safer?” Then, it is suggested, to brainstorm reasonable options until your child can find at least one thing that might help him feel more in control and then carry it out.
Kid-generated Solutions: “Tuck a flashlight under my pillow and move away from the window so I don’t see the shadows on the wall.”
As Dr. Borba says, “The truth is our world is unpredictable and uncertain. As much as we’d hope, we can’t protect our children from all the fears that life offers. But we can help our children learn ways to manage their fears and reduce their anxieties. We can teach our kids coping strategies, so they can use them to help them deal with whatever troubling event they encounter as well as boosting their resilience for life.”
Make sure it isn't a sensory issue
As many Autistic children have the comorbid condition Sensory Processing Disorder, it is important to make sure their fear of storms isn't actually them hurting because of SPD. With SPD sounds are louder, lights brighter... basically all of their senses are heightened. My son has SPD and is also terrified of thunder because if hurts his ears. Noise canceling headphones during thunderstorms works wonders for him. You can have your child's Occupational Therapist or doctor check them for Sensory Processing Disorder.