Helping Individuals with Autism Cope with Change
Navigating our world with COVID-19 is a challenge. Lately, our days bring us information that is unusual, unprecedented and often upsetting. We are experiencing fear and disorientation. We are adjusting our schedules, routines and activities as news stories flood our inboxes and social media. Trouble relaxing, falling asleep and staying asleep is plaguing our nights.
Individuals with autism need tools to help them process this new, stressful world more effectively. Sleep may be elusive. This article hopes to share some valuable resources available to help people with autism and their teachers, parents, and friends navigate this strange and unusual time.
Using Social Stories
Social Stories are a great resource to help individuals with Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) understand communication and new situations more effectively. New situations can be confusing and stressful if a child, adolescent or adult is not prepared and does not understand what is happening or how to react successfully. Social Stories can be created on a variety of topics and situations: taking another person’s point of view, rules, routines, upcoming events like holidays and vacations, and understanding expectations.
Carol Gray created a video that explains Social Stories. On her website she discusses the 10 defining criteria that guide story development and help a story to be meaningful and emotionally, socially and physically safe for a child, adolescent or adult with autism.
Create your own social stories at the Social Stories for autism page of the Autism Parenting Magazine website. Another great resource and a place where you can create personal social stories is the Autism Speaks website.
Using Weighted Blankets, Weighted Lap Pads, or Compression Bed Sheets
Many children, adolescents and adults on the autistic spectrum dislike being touched by other people. They may find the contact quite uncomfortable and even upsetting. But physicality is good for all of us and is in fact built into our nervous systems. Weighted or compression products allow touch-adverse people to experience healthy and gentle touch without feeling uncomfortable or out of control. Weighted products and compression products provide deep pressure stimulation, a special kind of touch that positively affects the nervous system. In the same way that a hug from a loved one calms and comforts many of us, deep pressure therapy naturally signals to our brains that we are safe and secure. The brain then releases positive chemicals like serotonin and reduces stress chemical levels, improving mood and encouraging a sense of calm. This is great for settling anxiety and excess energy and allows us to relax.
Reading social stories together snuggled under a sensory bedsheet or a weighted blanket can be a great part of your sleep routine. Weighted stuffed animals are fun reading and sleeping buddies, too. We recommend combining soothing products with educational Social Stories to help reduce anxiety about COVID-19 and other stressful social situations or events, teach important lessons and improve relaxation and sleep.
Researchers studying insomnia found that people sleep longer and their restless movements are decreased when they use a weighted blanket (Ackerley, R., G. Badre, and H. Olausson, 2015). Participants in the four-week-long study also reported that they found it easier to fall asleep each night and felt more refreshed in the morning when they used a weighted blanket. In addition to the practical benefits of using a weighted blanket, participants shared that they enjoyed sleeping with the weighted blanket. Researchers studying insomnia found that restless movements are decreased when people use a weighted blanket. Participants in the four-week-long study slept longer and reported that they found it easier to fall asleep each night and felt more refreshed in the morning when they used a weighted blanket. An evening routine of reading a social story and then snuggling up with a weighted or compression item is a great way to add comfort and relaxation each night.
Ackerley, R., G. Badre, and H. Olausson. "Positive Effects of a Weighted Blanket on Insomnia." Journal of Sleep Medicine & Disorders 2.3 (2015): 1-7.
Additional Helpful Resources
Articles and resources pertaining to COVID-19: https://www.autismspeaks.org/covid-19-information-and-resources
Additional Helpful Resources for parents of children with autism can be found here: https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/helpful-links/