Decreasing Stress for Autism Treatment

Autism and stress: two things that seem to go together as well as peanut butter and jelly. Every parent with a kid on the autism spectrum knows how things can spiral from super-chill to ultra-meltdown mode in a matter of seconds. Too often, parents and their kids are suffering from a high level of stress. Therefore, having a plan for decreasing stress for autism is clearly needed. If we can help our kids with autism be happy, then, we can help the entire family as well.

Luckily, there are plenty of things you can do to reduce your kiddo’s stress. I’m going to give you a lot of ideas in this article that will help to put the body into a more relaxed state.

Not only can these ideas help your child with autism, but they can easily be applied to the entire family too.

Decreasing Stress for Autism

Decreasing Stress for Autism: Too often, parents and their kids are suffering from a high level of stress. Therefore, having a plan for decreasing stress for autism is clearly needed. If we can help our kids with autism be happy, then, we can help the entire family as well.

Stress & Autism Treatment

Most parents have treatments and therapies in place for their ASD kids. Unfortunately, for the kids under chronic stress, progress in any of these therapies will be slow. It’s well documented that anyone in a state of constant “fight or flight” will not learn and/or retain information as well.

These kids will struggle with comprehension, forgetfulness, confusion, and they may quickly lose skills they mastered in school or therapy. According to functional medical doctors, “Stress is as detrimental as second-hand smoke”.

Our 4-D Autism Treatment Plan

Decreasing stress for autism is the 4th element of our holistic autism treatment plan for our son, Ethan. This is easily the hardest to implement. Not because the concepts or strategies are complicated, but because decreasing stress for autism management is easier said than done.

While this may be the most difficult phase to implement, it is possibly the most critical. Everything else we are trying to accomplish with our treatment plan will not be effective. If he remains chronically stressed out, any benefits from these interventions will be short lived.

Decreasing Stress for Autism

Because this is a comprehensive guide it may require more than one visit to read the entire article. For your convenience, I have included a clickable table of contents. By clicking on a section, you can jump to that section of the article. This can help if you need to come back later to finish the article.

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Table of Contents
  1. Identify & Reduce Target Stressors
  2. Try Not to Say No
  3. Sometimes You Have to Say No
  4. Vagal Stimulation
  5. Improve Sleep
  6. Manage Mom’s and Dad’s Stress
  7. Supplements that Can Help
  8. In Summary

Decreasing Stress for Autism

Decreasing Stress for Autism:

1 – Identify & Reduce Target Stressors

The most obvious thing to do in order to lower anyone’s stress is to reduce things that regularly cause stress. We’ve identified specific things that we call our target stressors. We can’t eliminate all the stress on our son, but we can certainly do our best to limit them. 

Simple Solutions to Simple Problems

My son’s triggers:

  • iPad dying
  • Movies skipping or freezing
  • Little sister’s screaming or crying
  • Unfamiliar places

We take simple steps to reduce these triggers when possible. We clean the DVDs before we play them. If they are too scratched, they get replaced or thrown out. The iPad is always charging when he’s not on it, and we remove his 3 year old sister from the room whenever she gets too intense for him.

When heading somewhere new, we come prepared with comfort items & tons of snacks to help Ethan feel like he has some type of control over a scary new place.

Find Your Child’s Triggers

There are a few simple and easy things that we can do to avoid triggers. Make a list of your kid’s regular stressors. Whether it’s certain lights or noises, changes in routines, clothes,…etc, determine what your triggers a stress response for your kiddo, and try to prevent them from occurring. Change the type of light bulbs you have, get noise canceling headphones, stick to a schedule,… simple solutions for small problems.

Hidden Biological Stressors

There are some things that can cause stress on a smaller scale and may even go unnoticed. Our cells can become stressed by things that we can’t even see. Chronic infections, environmental toxins, food sensitivities, MSG & other food additives, can all stress out our kids’ cells and place a burden on their bodies.

EMFs (electromagnetic fields) and bad lighting (CFLs & LEDs) are two areas getting extra attention lately. More research is being done everyday, but it is becoming clear that these invisible forces are affecting our stress levels too. Simply put, the body perceives these signals as a threat, which triggers the fight or flight response. As we are all constantly exposed to these signals, the body is under chronic stress without us even realizing it.

Hidden Biological Stressors:
  1. Pathogenic microbes (viruses, bacteria, fungi)
  2. Environmental Toxins
  3. Food Additives
  4. Food Sensitivities
  5. Electromagnetic Frequencies (EMFs)
  6. Certain Lighting
How Do We Manage these Hidden Stressors?

When it comes to EMFs, there’s a very simple thing you can do to dramatically reduce the effect of electromagnetic frequencies. Just turn off the WiFi when you go to bed. This will ensure the family gets a deeper sleep and allows their body to heal and repair itself. For more information on EMF safety, check out this interview I conducted with expert Peter Sullivan. He gives us several tips on how to deal with EMFs.

Bad lighting typically refers to CFL and LED lights. The most harmful may be the lights from our TVs, iPads, & smartphones. The best way to manage bad lighting is to avoid it at night. You can keep the lights off and do not let your kids have their devices at least an hour before bed. This will benefit their sleep cycle as well.

You Need a Total Body Treatment Plan

As parents we need to address all of these potential threats. This is where the other elements of our holistic autism treatment plan comes in. The plan includes a strict diet to avoid our sensitivities and any unnatural food additives. We are working to rid our son of a toxic burden from heavy metals and other toxins, and chronic infections are being fought by our DeBug protocol.

Decreasing Stress for Autism

2 – Don’t Say No

A big piece of how we are decreasing stress for autism treatment is to simply avoid saying no whenever possible. Not being able to do what he wants or have what he wants can trigger meltdowns and contribute to the stress load.

Before placing a major focus on reducing stress on Ethan, we would fight him on things a little more. I think I was trying to control things that I should have just let go of.

For example, Ethan likes to hang out in the car while it is parked in the garage. For whatever reason, I used to fight this. I didn’t like him hanging out in the car. Probably, because I didn’t want to hang in the car with him, and I did not want him in the garage alone. (too many dangers: tools, sharp things, chemicals…)

These days, I now just stop what I am doing, and I will go hang with him in the car. Sometimes, I’ll bring in some flashcards or a book and make a short “schooling” session with him in the car.

Our Little Nudist 

Clothing will sometimes spark anxiety and stress for Ethan. He went through a phase where he had to either be naked or in his underwear. In the past, we had some battles with him to keep his clothes on, but now we just let him be in his underwear.

We still fight him on the nakedness, but thankfully, the nudist phase has largely passed. Lately, he has been quite odd with clothes. He changes his shirt or shorts sometimes 5 times a day. Sometimes he will go back and forth between the same two shirts.

I used to fight this a little because inevitably all 5 shirts end up in my never-ending pile of laundry. I’ve yet to figure the reason behind the wardrobe changes, but I just go with it now. It’s better to add to the laundry pile than add to his stress.

Give Up

Today, we give up control where we can. It’s helpful to remember to pick your battles. Is it really worth trying to get him to watch a new movie instead of the same Dude Perfect YouTube video for 1,000th time, probably not.

Decreasing Stress for Autism: Too often, parents and their kids are suffering from a high level of stress. Therefore, having a plan for decreasing stress for autism is clearly needed. If we can help our kids with autism be happy, then, we can help the entire family as well.

Decreasing Stress for Autism

3 – Sometimes You Have to Say No

While we try to say yes to our son, sometimes we have to say no to other people in order to reduce the stress on the whole family. Activities, outings, and special occasions can actually have a positive impact on our stress levels. However, there are times when these things can place such a burden on the family, you have to say no.

For example, my mom just celebrated her 60th birthday. My Dad decided to host a surprise party for her and had many special activities planned. We were all excited to give her a special day.

Unfortunately, the week leading up to the party was a time of very high anxiety and my son was not doing well. My wife and I made the hard choice and told my family that we could not come. It wasn’t an easy decision, but I knew it was best for my son and the rest of our immediate family.

No Need to Feel Guilty

Sometimes, we make decisions to attend events like this one because we don’t want to upset our loved ones, and we’d feel guilty if we missed a special occasions. Give yourself permission to stay home, and don’t feel bad about it. Your loved ones will understand. They may be sad you’re not there, but they get it.

Do your best to explain the situation, and if they are not understanding, then that’s on them. You’re doing what’s best for you and your kids. Feel good about that, and don’t worry about how other people feel. They’ll get over it.

Decreasing Stress for Autism

4 – Vagal Stimulation

As we are removing certain stressors, we are also trying to help our son better handle stressful events. This is where vagal stimulation comes in. It sounds expensive and complicated, but don’t worry. These activities are free and fairly easy to incorporate into your lifestyle.

The vagus nerve is responsible for regulating the parasympathetic nervous system. If the sympathetic nervous system is your fight or flight mode, then think of the parasympathetic system as your “rest and digest” mode. Therefore, by stimulating and strengthening this nerve, you’re improving your body’s ability to combat stress.

Exercise

There are many things that you can do to help stimulate this nerve. Exercise is one of the best. It’s well documented how exercise can help relieve stress, and reduce the fight or flight response. We are really working on getting him moving around and exercising.

Exercise and autism is not so easy for us. Ethan is relatively low functioning, so a team sport is not an option. But, I do get him to chase me around the house for 10-15 minutes at a time.

It’s my iPad Hahahaha!

I’ll steal his iPad and playfully shout, “It’s my iPad hahaha!” and then take off running. He will giggle and chase me up and down the stairs, back and fourth through the house climbing over/under furniture in the process. Our exercise session usually ends with him climbing on me as I’m out of breath and collapsed on the floor where he reclaims his iPad. Often times, the best way to get my son to exercise is by simply engaging in some type of physically-intense play like this.

Oral Motor Activities

From my research, it seems like many activities you can do with the mouth can help stimulate the relaxation response. Singing, humming, chewing gum, and even gargling can help.

I’m working on getting my son to exhale more. My thought is that if he’s blowing out harder than he has to be breathing in deeper too. We have whistles, kazoos, and birthday party blowouts that I encourage him to use throughout the day. I also will have him blow a marble across the table through a straw.

Ever wonder why kids with autism seem to make repetitive odd noises? They sound kind of like an extended hum. Sometimes, they just seem to hold a tone for several seconds and then repeat. We’ve always written this off as a stimming behavior, but perhaps this is their way of self regulating and stimulating that vagus nerve.

Cold Therapy

Research is showing that when your body adjusts to cold temperatures, the fight or flight system declines and the rest and digest increases. Therefore, exposing your child to cold can help them handle stress.

I will give my son a cold shower a few times a week. Don’t worry. I’m not torturing him with a long cold shower. It’s just a 2 minute shower, and oftentimes I’ll jump in with him(fully clothed) as it helps him stay under the water longer.

The cold is a great tool to use during a meltdown as well. Cold showers can break them free from this state, but it’s usually too hard to get them in when they are very upset. You can try handing them a piece of ice to hold or chew. I picked up this little tip from this book, and you’ll be amazed how well it works.

You Are Safe

Basically, anything that sends the message to the body that you are safe will stimulate the vagus nerve. Here are some other free activities you can try. Remember, these will help parents too!

  • Grounding/Earthing
  • Deep Breathing
  • Meditation
  • Sunlight
  • Laughter
  • Massage
  • Tai Chi/Yoga
  • Fasting

 

Decreasing Stress for Autism: Too often, parents and their kids are suffering from a high level of stress. Therefore, having a plan for decreasing stress for autism is clearly needed. If we can help our kids with autism be happy, then, we can help the entire family as well.

 

Decreasing Stress for Autism

5 – A Good Night’s Sleep: Our Long Lost Love

Any program aimed at decreasing stress for autism must include a major emphasis on sleep quality. Now, if I had a magic cure for this I would be a rich man. Nearly every autism parent in the world knows the pain of sleep deprivation.

Poor sleep habits is one of the most common issues our ASD kids have. Using the stress management strategies outlined above will help. A child who is not in a state of chronic fight or flight will be able to settle down much easier and get a better night’s sleep.

Infections

You need to address those biological triggers that I discussed earlier. For us, the candida infection is the worst thing for sleep. My son would wake around 1:00 am bouncing off the walls and laughing uncontrollably for no reason. No amount of melatonin can help a child battling this type of infection sleep through the night.

Turn Off the WiFi

Remember to unplug your wireless router and power down all cell phones and devices overnight. (or at least put all devices in airplane mode) This will dramatically reduce the EMFs that can stress out the nervous system. Don’t forget our body’s are electrical, so outside electric signals can interfere with our natural rhythms.

No Bright Lights

If possible, try to avoid screen time for at least an hour before bedtime. The blue light suppresses melatonin(sleep hormone) production, and it could make it harder to fall asleep. Also, make the child’s room as dark as possible. You can buy blackout curtains or just make your own using a heavy dark material.

My son always turns his light on in the middle of the night, so we have replaced his regular bulb with a amber light bulb. The red light does not signal his body that it’s time to wake up the way normal bulbs would.

Clean Up the Diet

Another reason to eat a clean diet is for better sleep. Many food additives and artificial ingredients can excite our nervous system and keep us up at night or prevent us from a deep sleep.

At night, we want their body’s working on rest and recovery, so let’s not use this time for digestion too. Avoid giving them anything to eat at least an hour before you put your child to bed.

Fuel for Sleep

While we don’t want to give them food to eat, you do want to make sure they have sufficient energy to perform the repair and recovery functions and sleep through the night. We use a bedtime tea with ginger, turmeric, and lemon essential oil. I blend these up with butter/ghee, MCT oil, and honey.

The fats will provide long term energy and the honey will provide immediate energy. It’s fairly easy to digest, so no lost time or energy there.

Many parents report success using 1-2 tbsp of organic cornstarch or potato starch before bed. This prevents the child from waking up in the middle of the night due to low blood sugar.

We implement all of these strategies that seem to help improve sleep for Ethan. It’s certainly not a magic cure, but they do help a lot. Don’t forget to apply these same techniques for the entire family (including Mom & Dad)

Strategies for a Better Night’s Sleep

  1. Manage Daytime Stress Levels
  2. Address Biological Triggers (infections, EMFs, lighting)
  3. Clean Up the Diet
  4. Bedtime Tea: Blend fresh ginger, lemon essential oil, butter, & MCT oil
  5. Lavender Essential Oil on chest, feet, or diffused
  6. Use Melatonin Sparingly

Decreasing Stress for Autism

6 – Manage Mom & Dads Stress 

Ever notice whenever you’re cranky your kids also seem to be cranky? Is that a coincidence? I don’t think so. In our house, any time I am in a bad mood or stressed out, the mood throughout the house turns sour.

The entire family feeds off my negative energy, so the very first thing we parents need to do is focus on our own stress management strategies. Not only will this help your kids (and your spouse), but you will also be modeling good behavior as well.

We can manage our stress with the same strategies that I outlined above. Eating a clean diet, getting plenty of exercise, and sleep will go a long way in helping you handle the strain of the day. But, as adults, we can go a little deeper with our stress management.

Meditation

Meditation isn’t just for monks and hippies anymore. I’ve been practicing meditation now for a couple of years. It has been instrumental in helping me manage my stress better. You can meditate in just 5 or 10 minutes a day, and it doesn’t matter how you do it. Lay in bed, sit on a yoga mat, or lay on the floor of your bathroom like I do. (there’s no kids in the bathroom)

All that matters is that you are working on clearing your mind, processing your thoughts and emotions, and breathing deeply. Some people even have “walking meditations” where they walk in nature and just take in the sights and sounds of the environment. This just helps calm the mind and stimulates the vagus nerve I mentioned earlier.

Mindfulness & Gratitude

Incorporating gratitude and mindfulness into your daily life can do wonders for your happiness. You cannot be grateful and stressed at the same time, so find things everyday to be grateful for. Make this a habit by creating a daily practice.

I take 5 minutes to journal every night before bed. In my journal, I write 3 things that happened that day that I am grateful for. It can be as simple as my kids smile or a meltdown free day. Going to bed in a more mindful state, can make it easier to deal with those surprise 1:00 am wake up calls too.

Gratitude Makes You a Better Parent

We need to be rocks for our kiddos. When they are having a hard time, we need to help ease them through. We cannot do that effectively if we are in a poor state of mind due to stress. The point of a mindfulness practice is to prime your brain to be in a better state of mind. When you are grateful, you are happy and stress free. And, when you’re happy, you’re better able to be there for your family.

Decreasing Stress for Autism

7- Supplements

Sometimes both kids and parents need a little extra help at fighting stress, calming the nervous system, and getting a better night’s sleep.  There are tons of supplements you can find to help you. These are some of the more popular options, but work with your doctor to determine the best form and dosages for your family.

  • Magnesium
  • Melatonin
  • Omega 3’s/Fish Oil
  • GABA
  • Inositol
  • Theanine
  • Phosphatidylserine
  • Rhodiola
  • Holy Basil
  • Reishi
  • Essential Oils (lavender, frankincense, chamomile)

Ashwagandha is a very popular adaptogenic herb, but I wouldn’t recommend it. It’s a member of the nightshade family and can be tough on some people. If you would like to learn more about these supplements and others, I have included several links at the end of this article.

Decreasing Stress for Autism: Too often, parents and their kids are suffering from a high level of stress. Therefore, having a plan for decreasing stress for autism is clearly needed. If we can help our kids with autism be happy, then, we can help the entire family as well.

Decreasing Stress for Autism

In Summary:

Kids with autism are often battling chronic stress. Whether it’s from obvious triggers or invisible stressors from food or infections, having a plan in place for decreasing stress for autism is important. Luckily, many of the strategies in this article are very simple and can be implemented right now.

Decreasing Stress for Autism Summary
  1. Identify & Reduce Target Stressors
  2. Try Not to Say No
  3. Sometimes You Have to Say No
  4. Vagal Stimulation: (exercise, oral motor activities, cold therapy)
  5. Improve Sleep
  6. Manage Mom’s and Dad’s Stress
  7. Supplements that Can Help

 

Conclusion

Living with autism not only places a strain on the ASD child, but it can be stressful for the entire family. However, there’s no reason autism families cannot still live happy and healthy lives.

With a solid plan in place for decreasing stress for autism, you will help your child with autism feel better, teach their siblings how to handle stressful situations, and be on your way to creating the happy and tight-knit family you always wanted.

Share Your Story

What is your biggest obstacle to overcoming stress? Do you have any additional tips you’d like to share? 

Feel free to leave a comment
Don’t Forget

Remember, even if you implement many of these ideas, it will not have long lasting effect if you do not have a plan in place to address the body as a whole. Take a look at our entire autism treatment plan and work with your MAPS doctor to create a holistic protocol to address your child’s specific needs.

Our 4-D Autism Treatment Plan

** Remember, I am no doctor. I’m Simply a Dad working closely with his son’s doctor to help him feel better. **

 Further Reading:

One comment

  • Epsom salts in a warm bath for 20 minutes help with bedtime and sleep, too. The magnesium sulfate (epsom salt) gets absorbed transdermally (through the skin), which is very relaxing to the nervous system – which aids in falling asleep and staying asleep. We also add a dash of citric acid and simple baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) to the tub as well to help dechlorinate the water and aid in detox.

    Thanks for this great post!

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