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Autism and the Stress Effect: A Guide to Reducing Stress for Children

Most people would agree that stress can at best be distracting. At its worst, science links stress to any number of physical health problems across the general population. Stress presents a unique challenge for children with autism and their families. Now, a new book takes a closer look at managing stress from four different directions: environment, energy, nutrition, and emotional health.

Author Theresa Hamlin presents a roadmap to help parents, caregivers and educators learn to regulate those components for children with autism. Hamlin spoke with Autism Speaks about her book, Autism and the Stress Effect (Jessica Kingsley Publishers/2016).

(Responses Edited for Length)

Why did you decide to write Autism and the Stress Effect?

I’ve worked with families for the past 33 years at the Center for Discovery in New York. Families kept reporting to us that they were terribly stressed by their child’s condition and by the lack of support and overall knowledge about autism available to them. I thought maybe this book could help. It’s really about helping families better manage the stress that they’re under, while managing the stress of their child.

There’s a lot of research on autism. What was your approach in formulating this guide?

Every day, I start out my day by getting all of the notifications of new autism research available to us. I’m an educator by training, but I have a keen interest in the science behind autism. I have amassed thousands of studies over the past decade, and a pattern really started to emerge about stress and the biological factors related to autism. I saw studies about the environment and how the environment can be regulated to control stress. There was so much about food and how food can either enhance or hinder one’s well-being. Of course, there’s so much information about exercise, sleep and emotional regulation. I started to put all of these studies into folders and realized a pattern emerged. Of course, every time I met a new family, the one thing I kept hearing from them was that their children were so anxious and they were so stressed that the whole family was in chaos. It took a few years to develop it into a book that a family could pick up and read and learn something practical. That was really the goal.

Your book’s subtitle is: a 4-step lifestyle approach to transform your child’s health, happiness and vitality. Why are these 4 areas so critical for children with autism?

1.     Environment: People think about the environment and they think of the physical environment, but it’s more than that. The environment has to do with the structure of the environment – how the day is organized for a child. We know that that’s critical for children with autism. They don’t internally regulate. You need to externally organize for them. They are calmer when they know what’s expected of them.

2.     Energy: Energy regulation is very important in the autism community. We have some kids who are highly energetic and then ones who are described as that passive kid. There’s something to be said on both ends. There’s something to be said about needing to regulate that energy so that you’re attentive enough during the day so that you can learn, but not overstimulated so you can’t focus. There’s a lot of science about exercise and what it does to turn the brain on. There’s also a lot of science on sleep and how critical that is for children. Having a daily rhythm is key. People function better when they have consistency.

3.     Eating and Nutrition: I can’t say enough about food in children with autism. I think we have a problem in general about thinking about kids who have highly restrictive diets and also using primary foods as reinforcements for kids. I’ve seen it time and time again where parents and educators use candy, cookies, and food rewards to get kids to behave properly. It’s so counter-productive because you can’t load a child up with sugar and expect over time that’s going to make them sit better. I know it’s really hard for some kids to get variety in their diet, but you can’t give up hope that something else can work, or they’ll have long-term health problems in the end. Obesity among children, in general, is very concerning. It’s more than 33 percent. For kids with autism, research shows it’s more than 40 percent.

4.     Emotional Health: Empathy can be taught, but I also think self-efficacy is really important. Kids need to have a belief in themselves. That comes from the adults who are working with them and believing in them.

For most parents, regulating their child’s lifestyle is overwhelming. Where do you suggest parents start?

It’s really individualized. What I say to a family is, “What is most concerning to you?” They might say, “I can’t get him to eat anything but chicken nuggets.” So I say, “Let’s start by working on eating.” Whether it’s sleep or social issues, let’s start with that one challenge and try to make it better. Pick one thing and start small. It’s overwhelming to try to fix everything at once. I always say, don’t get discouraged. Every little bit counts. 

The Autism Speaks blog features opinions from people throughout the autism community. Each blog represents the point of view of the author and does not necessarily reflect Autism Speaks' beliefs or point of view.