A free online resource developed to support the inclusion of autistic learners in Scottish Early Learning and Childcare settings, Primary and Secondary schools.

Coping Strategies and Resilience

Coping strategies are how we manage our thoughts, feelings and actions in order to tolerate, minimise and deal with stressful situations in life. Resilience is the capacity to ‘bounce back’ or continue to do well despite adversity.


Teaching about Resilience

‘Mainstream’ resilience programmes often used in schools may need an autism lens to be put on them before they can be used to meaningfully support autistic learners. Whilst only being suitable for those at the Conversation partner level, many resources require well developed imagination, problem solving skills, an understanding of metaphorical language and the ability to transfer learning across contexts. The very things that many people use as coping strategies can be challenging for autistic people. These are outlined below. 

Coping Strategies and Resilience for Autistic Learners

Through the provision of individualised and anticipatory reasonable adjustments (Equality Act, 2010) we seek to provide a suitable and predictable social and physical environment and to reduce levels of stress and anxiety for autistic learners. However, we know that for a range of reasons levels of anxiety are likely to be higher for autistic learners.

When anxious, autistic learners will have increased levels of difficulty with:

  • Understanding and using communication
  • Dealing with sensory information
  • Working memory
  • Flexibility of thought
  • Social imagination
  • Disrupted expectations.

This means that learners will need individualised coping strategies that take account of their strengths and preferences and how familiar they are with a context.

Using strategies to regulate emotions

Coping strategies will change according to developmental stage. Teachers can help build resilience in autistic learners by supporting coping strategies at the right level for the individual.

Social partner level

What might you notice?
Social partners are likely to use behaviour strategies to self-regulate, e.g. pacing, rocking, spinning, mouthing objects. These might serve to distract themselves from the source of anxiety or they may provide sensory or motor input that is in itself calming.

How can you support?
Be aware that the child’s movements and behaviour are likely to be meeting a need, e.g. if you see that the child likes to pace up and down, try to provide space for this and allow the child to engage in this movement.

If the child is engaging in something that is unsafe, model an alternative that may offer the same feedback/serve the same purpose, e.g. if the child is squeezing people’s arms, you might make some blu tac or play dough available and model using it.

Language partner level

What might you notice?
In addition to the above behaviour strategies, Language partners may use language strategies. These could be in self-talk or inner voice. Examples might include, “Okay” after falling down, “Never mind” when they have spilt something or “Don’t worry” when afraid. Visual supports with pictures and prompt words could be used to support these responses.

How can you support?
Language strategies can be modelled in context by the people around the child, e.g. when the building block tower falls down, the adult could say, “Never mind!”

Conversation partner level

What might you notice?
In addition to the above behaviour strategies and language strategies, Conversation partners may develop the skills to form and use metacognitive strategies. These require the autistic learner to be able to reflect on and talk about cognitive processes that support organisation, decrease anxiety and regulate their emotional state.

Learners with developing social awareness may begin to recognise another’s perspective and to be able to reflect on what is expected in social situations. With support, conversation partners may be able to plan for situations by considering what might happen and what they might do, e.g. “when this happens, I can do that.” Knowing that help can be requested, from who and how can be reassuring.
Supporting conversation partners to identify calming strategies can be helpful. The learner could create their own resource to remind them of helpful self-regulation strategies. See Emotional Understanding and Regulation PowerPoint (Resources sidebar, right, or link here). 

How can you support?
Anticipate support required for coping with change or with new experiences. At a calm time, support the learner to plan for upcoming events, helping them to anticipate what could happen and what strategy they could use to cope, e.g. if you know that they will have to wait an unspecified amount of time for a turn, plan what could they do while they are waiting (a visual support could help to remind the child in the moment); If you are going to the theatre, plan for the child to sit on an end of aisle seat and have a plan for where they could go if they feel they need to leave during the performance.

Supporting transitions

Support transitions, large and small. It often helps to use visuals to prepare the learner for new places or unfamiliar experiences, e.g. photos of the museum you are planning to visit or of their new classroom.

Try to change only one thing at a time. If there is to be an unfamiliar adult taking the class, try to ensure that the lesson content and room are familiar. If the lesson is to be in an unfamiliar place, try to ensure that the people and resources are familiar. 

When changing school, plan extra visits, starting when the school or classrooms are empty and quiet. See the Transitions section of the Toolbox for further information.

Key Messages

For all stages, the autistic learner will be more likely to cope if the following key strategies are in place:

  1. Say less (see Communication section)
  2. Use a visual timetable (see Visual Supports section)
  3. Practise and prepare
  4. Provide a safe space (see NAIT Safe Space Guidance)
  5. Ask for help.

Masking and camouflaging 

Many autistic people are remarkably resilient however research tells us that they are likely to be working much harder to get through each day. 70% autistic adults experience depression or anxiety (Hollocks et al 2018).

There is a growing recognition that camouflaging or masking autistic characteristics in social situations is a common social coping strategy for autistic adults (Hull et al. 2017). It has been suggested that camouflaging offers an explanation for the missed or late diagnoses of women and girls. 

By mimicking or copying socially successful peers, an autistic individual may give the impression that they are not experiencing any problems, however when they are placed in unfamiliar settings they may struggle to socialise. It is possible that, in the more structured and routine environment of school, an individual may appear to cope whilst parents, seeing their child in a wider range of contexts, may report difficulties. Listening carefully to the parents can help to form a picture of ‘the 24 hour child’.

Camouflaging can come at a cost; where it is unsuccessful, or strenuous, it can be associated with high levels of stress.

Parenting stress

There is a reciprocal relationship between parent and child coping and resilience. 90% of parents of autistic children experience substantial parenting stress (Nikmat et al. 2008).

Any planning around coping and resilience should involve parents. Autism specific parent mediated interventions/parent programmes are recommended in the SIGN Guidelines and where, possible, parents should be made aware of these. Local provision varies. See Supporting Learners and Families section.

Reading

  • 'The Reason I Jump’ by Naoki Higashida 2007
  • 'Zones of Regulation' by Leah M Kuypers, 2011
  • '“Putting on my best normal”: Social Camouflaging in Adults with Autism Spectrum Conditions', Hull et al. 2017.