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Coping Skills

Tip of the Week:  COPING SKILLS

It is very common for individuals with autism to lack self-coping  or self-regulation skills to deal with feelings of anger, frustration, or anxiety.  Due to difficulties with communication skills, these elevated states of emotion may be more likely to be displayed by problem behavior instead of expressing emotions in a more appropriate way.  We all have coping skills (most of the time) when something is bothering us.  We might talk to someone, exercise, listen to music, take some alone time etc.  It’s important we teach our students those same skills as to lessen the likelihood of behavior escalating and give them a way to deal with their emotions.  Below are some ideas for teaching self-regulation skills and ideas for specific coping skills to teach.  

What self-coping skills do I teach?
Choosing the right coping skills is important.  The coping skills we choose should be easy, readily available, and compete with other problem behavior.  To determine what coping skills are best for your child, it is best to try out a whole bunch of ideas first.  Some you may be able to rule out right away based on the skill set of your child, but it’s best to try out as many as possible so that you can pick the top 3-5 to focus on.   Below is a list of ideas as to what you may want to try.
Coping skill ideas:

  1. Counting
  2. Deep breathing
  3. Hobbies- Doing a puzzle, stringing beads, doing art, listening to music
  4. Progress muscle relaxation- practice tightening and then relaxing muscle groups from the toes all the way up to the head
  5. Exercise- take a walk, do yoga, run, punch a punching bag
  6. Sensory activities- swings, body sock, squeezing sensory balls, bouncing on a physio-ball
  7. Distraction- use distracting activities (e.g. putting items away, folding, cleaning)

How do I teach self-coping skills?

  1. After you choose 3-5 coping skills to work on, you want to begin by practicing these skills during times where your child is calm and not engaged in problem behavior.
  2. You can tell your child to practice the skill (e.g. deep breathing) and after s/he does it, provide reinforcement.  You may even want to do it with him/her.
  3. You will likely need to prompt your child to engage in the skill at first (e.g. count to 5 and model 5 deep breaths while s/he takes deep breaths).  Prompts should be faded out gradually.
  4. After your child is independent with the coping skill, you can work on building it up.  You can do this by doing it for longer periods of time.
  5. Once your child can engage in this coping skill for a longer period of time, you want to teach him/her to engage in this alternative behavior when s/he begins to become frustrated so that the behavior doesn’t continue to escalate. 
  6. To do this, as soon as you see the first signs of frustration (or you know the situation is difficult for him/her), prompt him/her to engage in the coping strategy or to request it. You do not want to prompt the coping strategy while behavior has escalated since you may allow your child to escape based on demonstrating problem behavior. 
  7. Remember to provide lots of reinforcement when your child does engage in the alternative coping strategy!

Additional Tips:

  1. If social stories work for your child, use social stories to describe situations that commonly cause problem behavior, and review alternative coping strategies to engage in instead.
  2. If role play works for your child, act out specific situations that cause problem behavior and act out what to do instead.
  3. Use visuals to remind your child what they can do instead of engaging in problem behavior (e.g. a visual that says “if I need a break, I can take deep breaths, take a walk, or listen to music).  Including pictures of these activities may be helpful.
  4. Remember, self-coping skills should be taught as a proactive strategy so that the likelihood of behavior escalating is lessened.