By Renée Marchant, Psy.D.
Research indicates that children and teens with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) are more sensitive to heightened physiological sympathetic arousal (the “fight or flight” response), including increased heart rate, breathing rate, feeling “on edge” and body-based tenseness. Heightened physiological arousal is neurologically connected to sensory processing and emotional responses. This is why some children with ASD have “high startle responses” or sensitivities to specific sensations, such as touch or sounds. This is also why some children and teens with ASD are vulnerable to feelings of anxiety, particularly within social situations and settings.
There is growing research focusing on possible strategies and interventions that reduce anxiety and “buffer” the “fight or flight” response that can be activated for many children and teens with ASD.
5 Research-driven Anxiety Reducers:
Animals: Include companion or therapy animals in social groups or social outings (particularly new social events). In one study, children with ASD showed a 43% decrease in skin conductance responses during free play with peers in the presence of animals, as compared to toys (O’Haire, McKenzie, Beck, & Slaughter, 2015).
Exercise: Make a plan to engage in a “warm up” body-based activity right before a social event when anxiety levels are increasing (e.g., jumping jacks, burpees, squats). Research indicates that exercise calms the amygdala and decreases physiological arousal.
Relax or Distract: Practice progressive muscle relaxation (PMR). Recent research has indicated that regular and routine engagement in PMR sessions can be a useful strategy for individuals with ASD. Distract yourself from the anxiety-producing situation for the short term (e.g., count by 3s, name three things you can see and hear in the room, repeat words from your favorite song in your head).
Plan to Take a Break: Children and teens can benefit from having a healthy “escape plan” to take a break from socially-demanding and sensory-demanding settings (e.g., a large event like a play or concert, a college lecture, an interview for a job). Research indicates that “rest breaks” during mentally demanding tasks result in increased alertness, decreased fatigue and heightened relaxation.
Social Stories: Social stories provide the opportunity to practice and prepare for stressful situations, decreasing “fight or flight” responses. Read more about examples and applications of social stories in my colleague, Dr. Erin Gibbons’ previous blog post.
About the Author:
Dr. Marchant’s assessments prioritize the “whole picture,” particularly how systemic factors, such as culture, family life, school climate and broader systems impact diagnoses and treatment needs. She frequently observes children at school and participates in IEP meetings.
Dr. Marchant brings a wealth of clinical experience to her evaluations. In addition to her expertise in assessment, she has extensive experience providing evidence-based therapy to children in individual (TF-CBT, insight-oriented), group (DBT) and family (solution-focused, structural) modalities. Her school, home and treatment recommendations integrate practice-informed interventions that are tailored to the child’s unique needs.
Dr. Marchant received her B.A. from Boston College with a major in Clinical Psychology and her Psy.D. from William James College in Massachusetts. She completed her internship at the University of Utah’s Neuropsychiatric Institute and her postdoctoral fellowship at Cambridge Health Alliance, a Harvard Medical School teaching hospital, where she deepened her expertise in providing therapy and conducting assessments for children with neurodevelopmental disorders as well as youth who present with high-risk behaviors (e.g. psychosis, self-injury, aggression, suicidal ideation).
Dr. Marchant provides workshops and consultations to parents, school personnel and treatment professionals on ways to cultivate resilience and self-efficacy in the face of adversity, trauma, interpersonal violence and bullying. She is an expert on the interpretation of the Rorschach Inkblot Test and provides teaching and supervision on the usefulness of projective/performance-based measures in assessment. Dr. Marchant is also a member of the American Family Therapy Academy (AFTA) and continues to conduct research on the effectiveness of family therapy for high-risk, hospitalized patients.
Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton and Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 617-658-9800.