Perhaps you, too, have had this experience. A child—let’s call him Joey—is in the middle of a meltdown, and a well-intentioned adult advises him to take some deep breaths. (Perhaps you have even been that adult.) There’s just one problem—the child has never had any prior instruction in deep breathing, or any opportunity to rehearse using this technique to manage his anxiety and calm himself in a tense situation.
So the attempted intervention doesn’t work—in fact, Joey is likely to become even more upset, and take longer to cool down. Furthermore, the adult is likely to conclude that, “Deep breathing (or visualization, or muscle relaxation) doesn’t work for Joey.”
We should teach students strategies that help them become more resilient—strategies for problem-solving, flexible thinking, and anxiety management—but we need to plan ahead. We need to teach students these skills when they are calm—not the middle of a crisis. In this article I will share some of my thoughts and ideas on how we can help children learn how to manage their anxiety, and how to come up with creative solutions to the unexpected challenges life hands them.
Change is a Constant
Benjamin Franklin said that two things in life are certain, death and taxes. I say there are three: death, taxes, and life’s uncertainty. Try as we might to create reliable order, consistent routines, and reassuring structure in our days, unexpected forces regularly introduce change and chaos into our lives. A sudden rain shower soaks us, traffic jams or the bus runs late, people lose their tempers, and computers crash. When—not if—these things happen, we must respond dynamically, rapidly, creatively to solve the unexpected problem, while at the same time managing our mounting anxiety and frustration. Meeting life’s constant challenges can tax the resources even of neurotypical people, but it can overwhelm people with Asperger Syndrome.
My goal, for all the children that I work with, is for them to live in the messy, unstructured, and inconsistent real world, and to have lives as full and interesting as they possibly can, whether their dream is to research muskalids or raise a family. With varying types and levels of support, my students may well be able to realize their dreams. However, I know that no matter how many excellent supports are put in place, life remains inherently unpredictable. Anxiety-producing events will happen, and even the “highest tech” solution may fail at times—for example, that PDA or Blackberry may crash, or its battery may die.
Social Scripts are Not Enough
Over the past decade, while working with students with AS on social skills, perhaps the biggest lesson that I have learned is that it doesn’t matter how many scripts or social stories children have learned: if they aren’t able to manage their anxiety in the moment, the countless hours of script-building fly right out the window. Don’t get me wrong: scripts, visuals, social stories, cartooning, video-modeling, and role-playing are all valid, empirically-based best practices. However, to make sure students can use what they have learned, something more is needed.
Teach Resilience Early
As we work with students, we must begin to move away from a mode of reacting to immediate crises. We must plan ahead, training students to be ready for when the next crisis hits—because it’s only a matter of time. We must teach children to expect the unexpected, and we must arm them with a repertory of skills to handle life’s surprises. These skills will be indispensable for students throughout their lives. If we don’t teach our students those skills, we are short-changing them. So what can we do?
Most children with AS are going to struggle with anxiety-management even as they become older. Start teaching management techniques when they are young. Even in the social thinking groups I run for kindergarteners, we are always working on problem-solving and flexibility.
- Once the group has met often enough so that students feel comfortable—they know the routine, structure, safe spaces—I slowly introduce the concepts of problem-solving and flexibility through books, songs, and pictures. We define these words, and create our own visual images.
We share experiences in which being flexible is fun. For example, we may create characters such as the Silly Snafu or Mr./Ms. Mix-Up, who change things on us—and we have to be on the look out for what has changed.
We might have (or role-play having) breakfast foods for dinner, or eat our dessert first. (You can imagine how popular that is!)
- Sometimes I will purposely set up structure and routine in a group, and then “bait” the children to practice problem- solving/flexible thinking. For example, I may “forget” to bring an important item to the group meeting. We then have to improvise, to come up with something else we can use instead.
- If it’s a group that needs the support of a reinforcement system, I will eventually place different prizes in the prize box, and ask children to think of two or three different items they’d like to earn.
- We may do small group science experiments, or work on a problem-solving challenge. We try to find different ways to get the answer. “There’s more than one right answer” or There’s more than one solution” becomes our mantra.
Teachable Moments in Daily Life
Dr. Steven Gutstein, developer of Relationship Development Intervention, suggests several easy ways to incorporate similar activities into everyday family life. For example, “Take different routes to the same destination, depending on where you are at the moment. If you’re at the library, take the short route home. If you’re at the corner store, take the long route home. Note the neat things you can see by taking different routes.”
Teaching Resilience to Teens
Older students also benefit from direct instruction in flexibility, and often respond well to using a scientific perspective. We may start by asking: What are the properties that make a physical object or material flexible? We’ll then move on to a mini anatomy lesson on parts of our bodies. Next we’ll discuss flexible thinking—describing the breakthroughs made by famous flexible thinkers, and discussing things that were invented as a result of a happy mistake. When creating a plan or solving a problem, we will visually map out different choices, and discuss what might or might not happen with each approach.
When I work with an older student individually, the student and I will often create a list of stressful or unpredictable events—things that might not go as planned, and therefore might require flexible thinking. Together, we create a stress scale, ranking the events in order from least to most stressful. We brainstorm solutions, and we also identify stress-management techniques that might be useful during an event at that point on the scale.
Then we practice the relaxation techniques. Slowly and carefully, I tell the student that we are going to practice “getting anxious” and then relaxing. To the extent that we can, while avoiding major stressors, we set up one of the situations, try the strategy, and review how it worked. Once the student has practiced the strategy successfully several times in a calm, quiet room, s/he may be ready to try it in a busier environment. It is often very helpful for students to see that they can use the techniques successfully.
Leveraging the Mind-Body Connection
As Dr. Herbert Benson and Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn have shown, stress is often stored as physical tension in the muscles, and working with the body can benefit the mind. It makes sense to look for physical disciplines, too, that will help children with AS regulate their anxiety.
This summer I had the opportunity to attend a week-long training session, “Every Kids’ Yoga” taught by the talented Kripalu Yoga teacher Craig Hanauer. Craig has developed a yoga program at the Parkside School in New York City that has been effective in supporting students on the spectrum. Craig shared research about the effectiveness of regular yoga practice in helping students reduce their anxiety, regulate their bodies, and improve their focus and concentration. Children can be taught series of poses that can proactively help them regulate and calm their bodies. Yogic breathing techniques can also be taught and practiced in quiet moments, so that they are easier to access under stress. There are some teachers in the Boston area who teach yoga for especially for children and teens, and you may be able to find teachers in other parts of New England.
For children to whom yoga does not appeal, other forms of regular physical exercise can still help decrease their level of stress, in addition to carrying physical health benefits.
Teaching students with AS to expect change, to be active problem-solvers, to gain skills in flexible thinking, and to manage their anxiety builds a foundation for their future success in an unpredictable and uncertain world. One thing is for certain; our children and students deserve to be taught these skills.