Anxiety, ASD and the Power of Preventative Breaks


Research has shown that more than 75% of all children with ASD experience INTENSE anxious feelings. Today education is full of choices, open ended tasks and constant changes. For most students this makes learning interesting BUT for students with ASD, ADHD, ODD, etc. this creates many challenges and one of these is anxiety.

Anxiety can look like:

  • Avoidance of new situations
  • Preference for sameness
  • Rigidity
  • Insisting on same rules/routines
  • Social withdrawal
  • Anger
  • Meltdowns
  • Repetitive noise, movement or sentence

The Power of Preventative Breaks

  • Students self-regulating their anxiety is a VERY important part of their behaviour management programme.
  • A student being able to request a break before a meltdown is a fantastic strategy.
  • You will need to teach them a range of strategies to calm themselves. When you are teaching them, you will begin to notice which ones are more effective at calming. You can then write social scripts and use visual cards to help them remember what to do when they feel anxious.

Break Cards

Remember sometimes when anxious, children with ASD have difficulty communicating effectively, so this is why we use visual cards to request a break. You can use these in two ways:

  1. The student requests the break.
  2. You give the student the card as you see anxiety rising.

There are a range of strategies you can use for breaks and here are some to get you started:

Sensory Breaks

  • Chewing (allowing to chew gum, chewy tube etc.)
  • Quiet area
  • Listening to music
  • Watching liquid timer
  • Humming, rocking
  • Sit under a table with blanket over it
  • Carry heavy books, box
  • Lying under a gym mat, weighted vest etc.

Physical Physical Breaks

  • Mini trampoline
  • Rolling on large exercise ball
  • Star jumps, jumping
  • Push up against wall
  • Walk, run

Relaxation Breaks

  • Counting
  • Breathing
  • Music
  • Imaginary World (some students escape into an imaginary world, this is particularly common for girls on the spectrum)

Non-Threatening Withdrawal: Diversion before Meltdown

  • Send on an errand
  • Get them to do a job for you

Solitude Suggestions

  • Safe haven
  • Special interest time
  • Book to read
  • Sit away from group. For example: If you are on mat let them sit at a table away from group or if you are doing group work and the room is noisy send their group outside.
  • If you are lucky enough to have a small room off your classroom create a space for them to work there.

“Matthew often needed time in his ‘little room’. One day when I was in the classroom I observed him actually calling out answers from his room. He was still working just needed his own space.”

Other Strategies

  • Toilet, drink and/or food
  • Talking to mentor

Remember: All of these strategies need to be taught to the child and practiced.

Great New Book to explain Movement Breaks to EVERYONE

Winston Wallaby Can’t Stop Bouncing

By K.I. Al-Ghani & Joy Beaney

For ages 5-10 years. This illustrated storybook explains hyperactivity through the story of Winston
Wallaby and his uncontrollable bouncing at school. It allows children with ADHD, SPD and ASD to
recognise and support their additional sensory needs. A helpful introduction for parents/carers and appendices with strategies to be used at home and in school are included.

Click here for more information about this great book