Getting Unstuck with Self-Calming for Autism

When we work with autistic kids, we often find that self-regulation is challenging. Our young clients begin to get upset and don’t have the skills they need to wind back down again. Many of us know strategies that we think would help, but we have trouble getting the child to use the strategies when the moment comes. Has that happened to you? If so try this:

Concrete steps to teaching self-calming to your autistic clients.

Step 1: When the child is relaxed and happy, do a little assessment to see what types of activities help your child feel relaxed. Gather up a variety of activities in advance, and lay them out in a visual to-do list for the child.

Take data on which activities seem to be the most effective. For kids with less language, you can use a visual scale, or simply observe how they respond to each activity. If they latch onto something and want to keep doing it, it may be a good bet.

Also note which activities seem to make sense to the child. You never want to include activities that are confusing for the child or that use emerging skills. No one wants to do something difficult when they are already stressed.

Below you’ll find some examples of activities to try. Remember to choose activities that will likely make sense to the child. For instance, if your client is very young or is a very concrete thinker, you might try blowing pinwheels rather than deep breathing with a paper-and-pen visual.



  • Blowing a pinwheel

  • Blowing craft balls off the table

  • Blowing a feather

  • Blowing each finger like a birthday candle

  • Deep breathing with a visual like this or this

  • Simply taking 10 deep breaths



  • Squeezing a stress ball

  • Asking for a hug (some kids might benefit from a photograph of a hug that they can hand to a caregiver to request this activity if they have trouble asking with their words)


  • Jumping jacks

  • Push-ups against a wall

  • Pushing against someone else’s hands or against a large ball

  • Push-ups sitting in a chair (push hands down next to your hips to elevate body)

  • Band exercises (Pull band up over head 10 times, tie band to chair legs and press feet into band)


If the child has a strong interest, sometimes focusing on that interest can help a child get calm.

Maybe they would like matching pictures of trains, arranging numbers, putting blocks into a tin to hear them ding, watching a visual timer, or coloring pictures of their favorite characters. Whatever it is the child likes, try turning it into a simple activity for them.


Step 2: Take several of the activities that were easy for the child to use and seemed to make them feel good. Arrange them into a visual to-do list. You can simply arrange the activities themselves so your child can see all of them, or if your child understands lists you can write out a list.


Step 3: Once you’ve put together a calming routine, have the child practice it while they are calm. No one learns something new when they are stressed. Just imagine if you were really mad and someone suggested you do a few new yoga poses! That would not be the right time for you to learn to do those poses.

Here’s how you can begin to teach the child their new relaxation routine:

  1. If the child has a schedule, you can start by putting it on their schedule throughout the day. Try putting it on their schedule right before activities that may cause stress, so that they go into these difficult transitions feeling as relaxed as possible. If the child doesn’t have a schedule, you can let them know, “after we do XYZ, we are going to do your relaxation.”

  2. Once the child is good at doing the routine, you can surprise them with it in the middle of an activity so they can practice doing it unexpectedly. Start by interrupting an activity when they are calm and saying, “It’s time to do your relaxation” or showing them that you’ve added it unexpectedly to their schedule. This will help prepare them for the times you need to transition them to this routine unexpectedly because they are becoming upset, and it will keep it from feeling like a punishment.

  3. Now that your child is used to this routine, continue to put it on their schedule before stressful activities so that they regularly practice their new skills.

Step 4: Keep practicing the routine, and also use it before or after meltdowns. When you start to see a child become stressed or upset, calmly tell them, “Time to do your relaxation,” show them the schedule card, or give them the schedule object. It’s best to catch them before they escalate too far. If they are too upset to do it, wait until they calm down a bit and then try again.

The best times to practice self-calming skills are when we are just beginning to get upset and when are coming out on the other side. Most kids won’t be able to use these routines right in the middle of a meltdown. If the child is very mad or upset, it’s okay to simply keep them safe and wait until they are ready to do their relaxation exercise.

Make a note of what caused the meltdown, and try doing relaxation the next time that same scenario appears before they become overly stressed. For instance, if it was homework time that caused the meltdown, tomorrow try doing relaxation and then starting homework. If the child begins to become stressed, you can repeat all or part of the relaxation routine again to see if it will help them calm back down.


Wrapping up

By teaching autistic kids self-calming skills when they are relaxed, we are setting ourselves up to be as successful as possible in helping them learn. Following these steps will help you avoid making the self-calming routine feel like punishment to your autistic client. It will also help them be more likely to participate in the routine when they are asked to do it unexpectedly.


Therapists, if you want to dive even deeper into this topic, check out my Facebook Live on this topic in the Facebook Group, Learn Play & Thrive: Autism Resources for Professionals

Browse More Posts

Making Schedules for Autistic Kids

A great and easy-to-follow visual tool to support you in making schedules for your autistic clients – including how to build in flexibility!

The Best Therapy is Usually Simple

When we stop rushing and filling time to feel successful, it opens up so many possibilities for kids and families.

The #1 Reason OTs Feel Ineffective with Autistic Kids

Being an OT can leave you feeling alone and confused, but becoming a competent and confident therapist for kids on the autism spectrum is totally possible.

3 Essential Types of Visual Supports To Help Autistic Kids Succeed

When you make visuals that are clear and meaningful, your client will show you how much it really helps them!

Rethinking Hand-Over-Hand Assistance for Autistic Kids

If you don’t have a toolbox full of autism-specific strategies, letting go of hand-over-hand can feel scary. Keep reading to learn different strategies to keep therapy moving forward.

A Confident OT: What It Looks Like & How to Get There

We want to feel honest, calm, and present in our work, whether things are going great or our sessions are descending into chaos.