If you know anything about autism, you probably know autism and anxiety are two peas in a pod. Our oldest son has struggled with severe anxiety for a little over a year now.
He will panic about things like storms and weather related issues. If the clouds get too dark, he’ll lock all the doors and command everyone to stay inside where it’s safe. He is certain at any moment, a tornado is going to pick our house up like it did in “The Wizard of Oz.”
He can end up in an anxiety attack over an item being misplaced. If a lego that belongs at our in-laws ends up coming home with the boys, he is a mess until we get it back to them.
He’s terrified of the unknown (aren’t we all?) and anything related to shots or bodily harm. I blame this mostly on an unfortunate blood draw about eight months ago that we have yet to recover from.
We have an old, wing-back chair in our living room that I love. (This not a strange subject change…hang with me…)
It’s broken in, sturdy, and reminds me of that Kenny Chesney song, “Old Blue Chair.” It doesn’t match anything, and my husband hates it, but I love it because it’s my “spot” in the living room. When it’s too cold to go outside to my porch swing, I have my morning quiet time in this chair and I love to stuff as many kids as possible on it when we have a family movie night.
But the chair has received another tally mark in the negative column recently.
It shot my son.
Like most boys, our kids don’t realize you are supposed to sit on a chair, not stand on the top of its back. In our “O.T. mindset“, we don’t really mind that the boys jump on the furniture. I think secretly it’s our attempt to let them ruin it so we’ll have no choice but to buy new furniture ;).
So one Saturday morning, our oldest was bouncing on the chair, climbing up its back, and that’s when it happened. A “shot heard round the world”…
“I’VE BEEN SHOT!!!!!!!!”
Now, you know from my post The Woman at the Pool, I do not use caps non-judicially in my writing.
So, yes, he was screaming.
My husband and I jumped from what we were doing. Our son was hysterical. We tried to figure out what happened and translate what he said. “Been shot” we assumed meant “something that felt like a shot happened.” We were right.
One of the decorative buttons which pushes into the chair came off and the back of it poked his foot. It did bleed a tiny bit, which began his frantic questions: “Is this bad? How do we stop the bleeding?!” “All the blood’s leaving my body!” “Why does this keep happening to me?!” “Am I going to DIE??!”
I’d be lying if I said it’s easy to keep a strait face when your son thinks something the size of a paper cut has the ability to kill him.
But he really thought that.
That’s what’s important to remember.
My husband and I are no strangers to anxiety attacks. We have personally “enjoyed” these trials. They are a very real thing and they feel so debilitating at the time. Even as rational adults, we struggle to “talk ourselves out of them,” so picture that amplified for a non-rational child with autism.
What to Do During an Autism Anxiety Attack
Take Three Deep Breaths
You and them. Being the parent in the situation is no picnic either. Any wrong reaction can spur further anxiety and the reaction he is looking for do not always make sense. Your knee-jerk reaction of “Oh, you’re fine…” is wrong, by the way. He’s NOT okay, clearly, if he’s having an anxiety attack. No matter how bizarre the reason for the attack (a tiny cut on his foot) is irrelevant. Move on to helping him; don’t try to talk him out of it. And yes, literally take three deep breaths and encourage him to do the same.
Give Physical and Tangible Reassurance
If it’s taking an item back, maybe put it in the mailbox until you can get it where it goes. Lock the door during a thunderstorm so the lightning can’t get in. Give them some sort of physical & tangible reassurance.
During the chair shooting incident, my husband took him into our bathroom, ran warm water over the “wound”, wrapped it in an towel and applied a bandage when it dried. This was PROOF that it was going to be okay. When our son began to panic again, we could redirect him to his bandage and remind him of the warm water and towel and he’d calm down. His logic: Because we’d done those things, it must mean things are better.
Do Not Try to Speak Logically
There’s no rationalizing; speak his language. As ridiculous as it seems to you, this is a real issue for them. In the heat of an autism anxiety attack, the person under attack is CERTAIN disaster is eminent.
During an anxiety attack, we get his blanket, wrap him tight and sit on the couch. Then we read to him or put on a movie. Most of the time, this is not a real issue that needs resolution; you’re waiting out the storm of the anxiety attack. Do NOT try to solve problems in the midst of it. Take notes and talk about the situation when you child is calm and disconnected from the event.
Avoid the Triggers
If you know storms are a trigger, don’t plan an outing during one…or whatever your trigger is. Use common sense here.
Let Him Tell You What He Can Handle
If he brings up a trigger in a non-threatening way, go with it cautiously. Our son has since mentioned storms and said “oh, it’s raining, but we’re inside.” Praise and engage “yes, see, we’re inside so we’re safe.” Give little bits of information at a time.
Get Some Help
If this is a reoccurring problem, you need some help. It is not good for anyone in the family to have someone living at such a high stress level. We do not medicate with prescriptions, but our doctor “prescribed” us a supplement that has absolutely changed our lives. It helps to stabilize our son’s moods and keep him closer to “the middle” than to highs and lows. This, of course, helps with anxiety.