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Calming Techniques for Children on the Autistic Spectrum

Deep sensory techniques that invoke calm in autistic children.

I was inspired to write this piece as I was sure that there was many parents struggling along, waiting on all the appointments and health professionals getting around to you, while you bravely soldier on unaided day in, day out. For me it has been a long journey and my son is now eight, however I feel that we are finally reaching a point where we know the techniques that work for us. Remember what works for one child will not necessarily be helpful for another, and also that it may depend on the social situation or your child’s mood as to which technique you choose. Good luck and once again trust in what you feel is best for your child, as you know them better than anyone.

Deep Sensory Techniques

Sometimes, when your child is flying around the room, or on the verge of a temper tantrum, deep sensory touch can transform your child instantly. Start doing these exercises when the child is calm, in order to get them used to the idea.

Gather an assortment of fabrics and textures, examples would be fun fur, wool, silk, velour, tinsel, scrunched brown paper, bath scrunches, the list goes on. Search around your house and see what you can find lying around. Sit your child down so that they are facing you, and hold their hand with the forearm facing upwards. Apply a firm amount of pressure and draw the fabric from the elbow to the wrist. Ask your child if they like the texture. If they do, would they like more or less pressure? This is a simple case or trial and error, some kids like scratchy textures whereas my son loves velour and likes to start with very firm strokes and end lighter. Also try this on the cheeks, torso, back and legs. If your child is unable to communicate with you, you should be able to feel them relax and take your queue from their body language. Many kids on the spectrum have a favourite toy, blanket or item of clothing that they like the feel of, and this can be a good starting point. Once you have found the right texture and level of pressure, start suggesting to your child that this could help them to relax when stressed, or if they have fallen and hurt themselves rub the fabric on their cheek whilst holding them.

Another form of deep pressure uses a large inflatable sausage shape, or if like me you are struggling to find or afford the specialist equipment, a space hopper works just as well. Get your child to lie face down on the floor and stretch their arms out like Superman, (if you have hard floors use a rug, aerobics mat or duvet). Start at your child’s feet and roll the space hopper up their body whilst pressing down on it avoiding the head and moving onto the arms. Again this is trial and error but start with a firm amount of pressure, my son loves this and likes to pressed really hard, you can visibly see him calm down and relax. We have adopted this as part of our daily routine and find that after bath time is great as it helps him wind down for bed. It is also useful if he has had a particularly stressful day at school or if things are just getting a bit too much. I understand that we cant always have a space hopper with us but by using vocal prompts such as “cuddle time” or “big squash” you can firmly hug your child when out and about and they will learn to associate this with a feeling of calm and security. I find this useful when in supermarkets or on outings and if I manage to catch him early enough I can now prevent a full-scale blow out. My son has also started to recognise within himself that he needs to be “squashed” and will often ask before his behaviour starts to escalate.

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  1. Hi my son has Aspergers, if i was to try most of these techniques with my son it would only prove to make matters worse. When he is aggitated his hypersensitivity to touch is heightened, with this in mind i wouldn’t dream of wrapping him in a duvet or blanket, and at 13 i wouldn’t be able to rub his favourite thing on his face while holding him as his favourite s are fossils and trains. Im sorry i dont want to sound negative but what i have read is silly!

  2. actually don’t knock it until you have tried it, deep pressure helps hypersensitivity, it is light touch that doesn’t go down well, it had been proved that deep pressure calms down the senses, and can return children to a even keel, i have three autistic children myself, with varying degrees of sensory impairment

  3. This is very similar to multi sensory integration therapy (which cost nearly £400 for each chld for a 3 hr session!!!!)
    The bit about facing your child would be totally wrong for my boys as they dont like facial contact (fragile x syndrome/autism) but we sit behind them, hold them firmly and gently rock them.
    It does work, but better on one child than the other.
    deep pressure is very calming. It’s no good doing it once they are agitated but when theya re reasonably calm to get them in the habit.
    I got my partner to try it on me before we did it on the boys (we always try before we buy!) and i found it calming too lol.

  4. hi, my son is severely autistic, non verbal and has very challenging behaviour. i use deep pressure massage most days.especially before clothes are going on.i have had a sensory referral for my son with Occupational Therapist and found it brill.time consuming yes, but would have lost time challenging an unwilling child. this way we both win.i cry daily at the challenges my son endures. and will do anything to make life easier and more practical to his needs.

  5. I would like to say a very big thank you to all of you who have taken the time to read and comment, both on here and on the other forums with links, I appreciate how precious your time is :-) .
    I still have daily struggles with my son but have found that the deep presure is realy helping, we do it everyday and it is time consuming but we are realy starting to see the benifits.
    We have found that he realy likes to have a scrubbing brush rubbed on his feet when he is stressed, if he is realy bad he will now do this to himself and I hope to link this to school when he goes back after summer break.
    Good luck to all of you and thanks again.

  6. I found this piece very refreshing. I’m extremely interested in different strategies to deal with autistic/ADHD/SED children in a high emotional state as I have to deal with them professionally on a daily basis. Granted I’m certain techniques that work differ with EVERY child, however I’m extremely grateful that you’ve added yet another option to cope with such a situation.

  7. Thanks for sharing here- you’ve got some really great ideas. Also I’d just like to throw this out there: anyone who has a child with sensory issues should take the time to consult with an occupational therapist. They are so knowledgeable about techniques for you to at least try, and they know a lot about why autistic kids have the sensory issues they do, be it too much sensitivity to stimuli or too little. For example, my 3 year old autistic son’s OT at his preschool explained to me that their hand muscles are sometimes not developed properly between the thumb and index finger, so they will tighten their hands or not be able to hold crayons or eating utensils properly. I never would have thought of muscle development being the cause for this, but it made sense to me, and we’ve been working on it ever since, and I have seen improvement. Sorry this was so long, but I hope this could help someone out there. Thanks again. :)

  8. I was nodding my head pretty much through your whole article. I’ve never been diagnosed with anything related to Autism (never bother to bring it up a the doctors) however I have specific known triggers which cause me to have massive meltdowns (which is very embarrassing to have when your 25) and the exercises you have pointed out have always been quite helpful for calming myself down.

    As a child I used to sausage roll myself. It was just a habit I randomly developed and it used to drive my parents nuts but none of us knew why I felt the need to be wrapped up like a cocoon.

    With textures, my fav is soft fabric. The newer fleecy materials that have been coming out in the last decade are absolutely heaven for me. As soon as I snuggle up with my face (my cheek specifically) in my fleece blanket my whole body just relaxes like magic.

    And just a side comment, for those that leave negative notes on here, please bare in mind that like anything, these techniques will not work for everyone and that’s ok. It’s all about trial and error until you find what does work for you, so please don’t bash them.

  9. This is a really interesting article. I am 21 and have HFA and I really enjoy being tightly wrapped up in my duvet. I can’t sleep without doing so. I also relax when I have my sister put pressure on my spine with her hands. However, I do not like people bumping into me or other light touches. Before reading this article I didn’t know pressure was linked to calming down. When I am anxious at college I squeeze my hands together or sometimes sit on my hands or press my back into the corner of a room. These are really good ideas and they do work, but different people will enjoy different things.

  10. This is a really interesting article. I am 21 and have HFA and I really enjoy being tightly wrapped up in my duvet. I can\’t sleep without doing so. I also relax when I have my sister put pressure on my spine with her hands. However, I do not like people bumping into me or other light touches. Before reading this article I didn\’t know pressure was linked to calming down. When I am anxious at college I squeeze my hands together or sometimes sit on my hands or press my back into the corner of a room. These are really good ideas and they do work, but different people will enjoy different things.

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