Seattle Children’s recently received a tweet from the parent of a child with autism asking about strategies for support when the news makes their child anxious. This question comes up frequently in our clinic. The following general tips may be helpful. As usual, they should not be viewed as clinical advice and should not replace advice from your mental health or medical provider.
Helpful thoughts to consider about how many children with autism think and how you can support your child if the news makes him/her anxious:
- -First, we encourage all parents to think about whether the content of the news is even appropriate for your child. News stories often contain potentially disturbing information, and of course, are known for sensationalizing events in a way that can even make adults anxious. Also be aware of whether your child is exposed to the news just by being in the room, even if s/he is not directly watching.
- -It may also be helpful for parents to be aware of their own reaction to the news. All children, with and without autism, model their emotional reactions after their parents to some extent. If you remain calm and convey that you are not worried, your child is likely to model this reaction. Kids are often quite reassured by seeing that a parent is not worried. This is especially true for younger kids or those with a greater level of cognitive impairment, who may not understand the rationale behind some of the strategies listed below.
- –Many children with autism are literal thinkers. This means that they do not always understand figurative language and may think that everything they hear or read is true. Evaluate whether your child has correctly understood what they heard on the news before you react. If their understanding is faulty (e.g., believing a news story on the end of the world coming in 2012 is based on fact) try to explain the nature of the story to them so they understand it is not true.
- –Social deficits can often interfere with a child with autism’s ability to judge a situation. This might mean they have difficulty judging the amount of danger something they see on the news may pose to them (e.g., not understanding that a hurricane in the gulf is not dangerous to people in Seattle). Try to explain logically why a situation is not dangerous to your child if, indeed, it is not.
- –Many children with autism struggle with ambiguity—not knowing whether something might happen. Therefore, if something they saw on the news could happen (e.g., someone could break into your house, even though it has never happened) they worry that it will. These children can be difficult to reassure because theoretically their fear could come true. It can still be helpful to try and reason logically with your child in these situations.
Playing a “detective thinking” game is sometimes helpful. Have your child give you evidence that the feared event will happen and evidence that it will not happen. Then decide on the likelihood of the event occurring and discuss whether it is something that should be worried about. If not, remind your child about “the evidence” when the topic is raised and then try to redirect to other topics.
- –Example detective thinking exercise: If your child fears that someone will break into your house.
- –Evidence that this will happen: 1) I saw it on the news. 2) It has happened to other people before.
- –Evidence that this will not happen (as long as these are true—do not generate evidence that is not true): 1) It has never happened to my house. 2) It has never happened to anyone I know. 3) We lock our doors at night and when we are not home. 4) We have an alarm system.
Which is more likely, it will or will not happen? WILL NOT! Remind your child of this when they become worried.
As a final suggestion, it is important to be truthful with your child. Do not to tell your child something will not happen if it is possible. Most children who have worries will know this is not true and will not feel reassured. They also will not trust you as a supportive adult if they know you are not being honest with them. It is better to acknowledge that it is reasonable to be scared, try to reassure the child that the risk is low and engage your child in an activity that is calming for him/her. This will allow your child to feel validated and supported by you, will insure that he/she comes to you for support over time and will model effective coping skills for the future.