Anxiety is a natural response to feelings of stress. While any child can experience anxiety, children with functional needs (commonly referred to as special needs) may experience anxiety more often and more intensely. These more intense feelings can sometimes be the result of one or more of the following:
- Their disability makes it more difficult to understand what is happening around them.
- They may be bullied due to their disability.
- Their disability affects their daily life.
- They feel different from other children.
- They’re learning to cope with their disability.
Persistent anxiety issues that disrupt everyday life can make children with special needs feel inadequate, shameful or guilty. Support, empathy and accommodations are essential in order to understand each child’s feelings and address them in a way that lessens their anxiety.
There are many ways to reduce anxiety in children with disabilities. Calming strategies and techniques can help children cope with these anxious feelings. When children with special needs know how to manage their anxiety, they can feel more in control of their environment and responses as well as more confident about participating in daily life.
How Anxiety Manifests in Children With Special Needs
Children with special needs who experience anxiety can be triggered by various scenarios and conditions and display many symptoms. It’s important to understand the manifestations of anxiety in a child with functional needs. Teaching your child with special needs about anxiety symptoms helps them understand what is happening to their body. As their caregiver, you can help your child navigate their anxiety and feel empowered.
Causes and Symptoms of Anxiety
The causes or triggers of anxiety differ for each child and may depend on the disability. For example, children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) can feel anxious if their routine is changed. In some cases, a medical condition can cause anxiety. If this is the case for your child, talk to a medical professional about treatment options.
Some common causes of anxiety in children with functional needs include:
- Environmental changes, like moving to a new city.
- Inability to complete a task as planned.
- Sensory issues like understimulation or overstimulation.
- Social situations like parties or gatherings.
- Unexpected changes in routine, like school closures.
- Worry over an object, event or activity, like an upcoming test or a missing book.
- Detecting anxiety in others.
Anxiety manifests in many mental and physical symptoms that are different for each child. As a result, anxiety in children with special needs can sometimes go undetected. These symptoms can even be interpreted as noncompliance or a lack of discipline.
The most common signs of anxiety in children with special needs include:
- Crying or screaming
- Emotional outbursts
- Fast heartbeat
- Flapping hands
- Poor focus
- Sleeping difficulties
- Social avoidance or withdrawal
- Stomach aches
- Sweaty palms
Sensory Stimulation and Overload
Sensory-related anxiety is common in children with ASD and other functional needs. Your child’s sensory system — and the stimulation and overload of it — can affect emotional and behavioral regulation and lead to anxiety.
Each child has a different sensory threshold. When your child has too much stimulation, their central nervous system is overwhelmed, which prevents them from understanding the input.
Since many children with sensory processing disorders cannot self-regulate, the overstimulation can lead to sensory overload, which may cause sensory-based meltdowns. A sensory meltdown is a physiological response to feeling overwhelmed by too many stimuli. Sensory meltdowns are a response to what your child is feeling.
A sensory meltdown may then trigger a fight-or-flight response. This response is caused by the nervous system interpreting sensory inputs as threats. If your child is experiencing overstimulation, they may feel threatened and unable to act logically, leading to anxiety symptoms like crying or screaming.
Types of Anxiety
Here are the most common forms of anxiety that present in children with special needs:
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD): OCD is characterized by obsessive and repetitive behaviors. Children with OCD may feel compelled to do something a specific way or a certain number of times to prevent something bad from happening. These obsessive thoughts and compulsive actions can interfere with or take over daily life.
- Social anxiety: Social anxiety occurs when a person feels overwhelmed about social situations and interactions. Signs of social anxiety include avoiding social interactions, maintaining little to no eye contact during conversations, having difficulty interpreting social cues, and experiencing symptoms like a racing heartbeat, sweaty palms and shakiness during conversations. Social anxiety is common in children with ASD since autism can affect social behaviors.
- Specific phobia: A phobia anxiety is when someone develops a fear of a situation, place or object. Your child will try to avoid situations where the phobia could present itself, leading to a restricted lifestyle. For example, a child with a phobia of bees may not want to play outside. If your child has a specific phobia, be aware of situations where their phobia could present, especially if your child is non-speaking (commonly referred to as non-verbal).
Eight Calming Strategies for Children With Special Needs
If your child with functional needs experiences anxiety, they need support to help manage their symptoms. Calming strategies are an effective way to relieve anxiety. Remember that your child will respond to some methods better than others, so you may want to try more than one strategy to find what works best.
Learn how to reduce anxiety in children with autism and other functional needs through these calming strategies.
1. Use Self-Soothing Techniques
Self-soothing techniques can help reduce and control anxiety. You and your child can try various strategies — some may work better than others, and your child’s abilities will determine which you can use.
Some effective self-soothing strategies include:
- Breathing exercises
- Counting to 10
2. Get Active Through Exercise
Exercising every day — or at least regularly — benefits physical and mental health, making it a great way for children with functional needs to manage anxiety.
Exercise routines should be based on your child’s abilities and interests. When your child is interested in the activity, they’ll be more encouraged to exercise and want to get active every day. Some physical activities you can do with your child include:
3. Help Them Express Their Emotions
When your child feels an emotion, they need a healthy and productive way to express their feelings. Repressed emotions — an emotion felt but not expressed — can make your child feel anxious.
A safe space can help children with special needs express their emotions, such as sadness, irritability and anger. Teach your child that emotions are valid and expressing them is good. When children feel permitted to express their feelings freely, they often won’t feel as overwhelmed or intimidated by their emotions. Expression also prevents repressed emotions and subsequent behaviors.
For children who are non-speaking, you can help them express their emotions through communication devices. You can print icons showing faces with certain emotions, and your child can point to the card that matches their feelings. You can also have your child pick out a card and ask them to put a name to the emotion.
4. Create a Coping Toolbox
A coping toolbox for children with special needs who experience anxiety has toys, fidgets, books and other tools they can use to handle their emotions when feeling anxious. These devices help children use the calming strategies that work for them to self-regulate and improve their tolerance to anxiety-producing scenarios.
Here are some ideas for things you can put in your child’s coping toolbox:
- Books for self-guided reading
- Coloring books for creative expression
- Fidgets for stimming
- Sensory toys for calming or stimulation
- Social stories for emotional self-regulation
- Toys and games for playing
- Visual schedules for activities and tasks
In addition to physical objects, you can include apps designed for children with ASD in your coping toolbox. These apps cover various topics, including:
- Behavior management
- Creativity and art
- Scheduling and organizing
- Sensory and relaxation techniques
- Social skills
5. Create a Safe Sensory Space
A sensory room is a safe space where a person with functional needs can regulate and calm down when feeling anxious or overwhelmed. These areas should include toys and other objects that provide the right amount of sensory input.
Sensory spaces work well for children who feel anxious from sensory overload. You can create a sensory room based around your child’s unique needs, whether that means toys that provide calmness, or options like a stuffed animal that lights up and sings a song or one that vibrates.
6. Communicate Expectations and Plans
Children with ASD may have difficulty transitioning between activities, especially when moving from an activity they enjoy to one they do not. You can use various tools to help make the transition smoother and reduce anxiety. When your child knows what to expect, they can better visualize and anticipate the activity. The positive example can encourage them to transition to the next task.
You can communicate plans and activities using tools like:
- Social stories: A social story is a narrative that models a particular scenario and what will happen. You can read the social story to your child before doing that activity so your child will feel less anxious. They can anticipate what will happen and see a positive example of responding to the situation. Social stories can illustrate activities like a grocery store trip, brushing teeth or washing hands.
- Video modeling: Video models are a social story in a different format and show a positive example of transitioning to a new activity. Children who watch video models of the activity they’ll do next can better transition because they know what to expect.
- Visual activity and task schedules: The visual schedule includes a picture of the task and the time when they’ll do the activity. The picture tells your child what they should do, and the time indicates when the activity will happen. This tool gives your child a sense of control, which can reduce anxiety.
7. Plan Quiet Time
Quiet time helps children with functional needs because it supports regulation throughout the day. You can plan quiet time in your child’s schedule before they feel overwhelmed by the day’s activities.
During quiet time, your child can play with toys that help calm them. Our Peaceful Play Bundle features toys that soothe and calm while providing the right stimulation, increasing visual attention and encouraging exploration. Children who are able can settle into the Beanless Bag Chair to cuddle with the Vibrating Rabbit, enjoy the light show from the Jellyfish Soother or play with the Fish Play Mat.
8. Consider a Therapy Option
If you haven’t already tried it, consider therapy for your child. Therapy can provide additional support for children with functional needs who have anxiety. Many types of therapy can benefit children with special needs, including:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT helps children alter their behaviors and beliefs to cope during difficult situations. A therapist will work with your child to help them change their thoughts about a situation — the cognitive — and their reactions to a situation — the behavioral.
- Exposure therapy: Exposure therapy can help reduce your child’s anxiety triggers. A therapist will work with your child to identify their triggers. Then, your child will be exposed to their triggers a little at a time in a safe setting. As your child gets used to the trigger, their anxiety may decrease or disappear.
- Pharmacological interventions: Medications can help children with functional needs manage their anxiety by reducing symptoms or the anxiety itself. Each option works differently — some are taken daily, while others are taken when your child is experiencing anxiety. Your child’s doctor can help you determine if a pharmacological approach is right for your child and decide which medication may work best.
Ease Your Child’s Anxiety With Calming Toys From Enabling Devices
Enabling Devices supports these various techniques to help ease your child’s anxiety. We have many calming toys that can help a child with functional needs cope with their anxiety. Some of our products include:
- Twiddles: Soft, cuddly objects decorated with various materials to provide stimulation and produce a calming effect.
- On-the-Go Sensory Buddies: Soft plush backpacks shaped like animals that are filled with sensory toys like Bubble Poppers, Spiky Character Balls, Marble Slide Fidgets and more.
- Weighted Puppy: A soft puppy-shaped wrap that lays on the neck and shoulders to provide calming pressure and improve concentration, attention and self-regulation.
- Fiber Optic Lamp with Bluetooth Speaker: Sets acalm tone in a sensory space through tactile lights and auditory stimulation.
We provide assistive technology, toys and other products as well as support and resources to help individuals with special needs participate fully in the world. Contact our team today for more information about our calming toys for anxiety.