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How to Help Children With Autism Cope With Panic Attacks

Adult hugging a young child on their couch

Every parent wants their child to be healthy and happy, and watching your child struggle with panic attacks is upsetting. Anxiety and panic disorders are common among children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Children with ASD can experience these feelings suddenly and frequently, making daily functioning a challenge. In this guide, we’ll discuss strategies and treatments to help children with ASD prevent and cope with panic attacks.

What Is a Panic Attack?

A panic attack is an episode of intense fear and anxiety that causes a physical reaction in the body. Panic attacks often occur during times when there is no obvious danger or external threat. They can last from a few moments up to half an hour and may occur frequently and without warning. Children are often terrified after their first experience. Many people feel like they are dying or having a heart attack.

Physical symptoms of a panic attack include:

  • Racing heart
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Trembling
  • Sweating
  • Muscle pain
  • Chest pain
  • Abdominal pain

Can Autism Cause Panic Attacks?

Panic attacks are often triggered by concentrated feelings of distress and are often associated with anxiety disorders. Since children with ASD often experience high levels of anxiety and emotion, they may be prone to panic attacks.

Identifying the cause of a panic attack can be challenging. Some potential triggers for children with ASD include:

  • A disruption to their routine.
  • Changes in their environment.
  • Unfamiliar social situations.
  • Exposure to a phobia.
  • Consuming caffeine.
  • Sensory overload.

How to Help a Child With Autism Cope With Panic Attacks

You’ll do whatever it takes to help your child feel better. The best way to manage panic disorder is by seeking treatment and using calming strategies at home. Use these techniques to help your child cope with panic attacks:

1. Recognize the Signs

Recognizing when your child is about to have a panic attack gives you the opportunity to intervene and potentially prevent a full-blown episode. The signs of a panic attack are different for everyone and are even harder to recognize in children with ASD. Think about your child’s behavior right before previous panic attacks. Do you notice any patterns?

Some common signs of a panic attack in children with ASD are:

  • Crying
  • Pacing
  • Repetitive motions
  • Echolalia, or repetition of speech
  • Weakness
  • Dizziness
  • Shaking

2. Refocus Their Attention

If you notice that your child is showing symptoms of a panic attack, try to reduce their anxiety by refocusing their attention on something else. Read them a book or recount a happy memory. Talk about a recent trip to the park or a visit with grandma. This can help your child think of a happy memory instead of what’s causing them anxiety.

You can also try asking your child to point out certain objects in the room. For example, “Can you show me all of the yellow objects in the room?” This may help refocus their attention on something less triggering. Keep going with different colors and types of objects until your child seems calmer. Refocusing their attention is a great way to help with panic attacks in children.

3. Practice Deep Breaths

Encourage your child to take deep and controlled breaths. Ask them to breathe in through their nose while you count to five and breathe out through their mouth for another five seconds. Do it with them so they can model your behavior. Have them close their eyes if they have trouble focusing. Keep going until they begin calming down.

4. Discuss Their Feelings

If your child can use language to express their feelings, ask them what is making them anxious. If they respond, you can help them work through their fear with facts and solutions.

Imagine your child is upset because it’s chicken nugget day at school, and they don’t like chicken nuggets. First, you can check the school menu with them to make sure chicken nuggets are being served and if there are other meal options your child will eat. If the school is only serving chicken nuggets, help them brainstorm other solutions, like packing a lunch. You could also ask them to choose their favorite snack or dinner to have after school so they have something positive to focus on.

Discussing their concerns and offering solutions can help lessen the anxiety before it leads to a panic attack.

5. Ride It Out With Them

If the panic attack has already started, you can still support your child by riding it out with them. Practice taking deep breaths and reminding them that they are safe. Keep reassuring them that there is no immediate danger. Encourage them that these intense feelings will eventually subside and that they are not alone.

Potential Treatments for Autism Panic Attacks

Treating panic attacks in children with ASD requires a comprehensive and personalized approach. These are some of the most common treatments for children with autism, anxiety and panic attacks:

  • Cognitive behavioral treatment (CBT): CBT is a psychological treatment used to treat anxiety and panic disorders. Treatments may include learning new ways of thinking, breathing exercises, and practicing relaxation. Research shows that CBT is effective at producing change. CBT treatment may help your child challenge negative thoughts, cope with intense emotions, and face their fears.
  • Emotional regulation techniques: With the help of a therapist, your child can learn techniques to regulate their emotions when they feel anxious. They’ll learn skills like deep breathing and practicing mindfulness to relax.
  • Sensory integration therapy: Kids with ASD are prone to sensory overload, which can cause panic attacks. Sensory integration therapy helps children manage these sensitivities to reduce their anxiety in overstimulating environments.
  • Medication: Providers often pair medication with therapy to treat panic disorders. The medication helps control physical symptoms, while therapy gives children the tools to process their emotions. Doctors and psychiatrists typically prescribe selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) for intense anxiety.

How Kids SPOT Helps Children With Autism Overcome Panic Attacks

Panic attacks are a sign that your child experiences severe anxiety. Frequent and unpredictable panic attacks are common among kids with ASD who already have trouble processing their emotions. Children with panic disorder need a personalized treatment plan designed to address their unique fears. At Kids SPOT, we’ll teach your child tools to manage anxiety and help improve their mental health. Our team specializes in evidence-based interventions, including:

  • Anxiety management techniques
  • Speech therapy
  • Physical therapy
  • Occupational therapy
  • Applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy

Our compassionate therapists offer a supportive environment where children with ASD can learn to cope with anxiety and prevent panic attacks. Contact us today to schedule individualized treatment for panic disorder.

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