ASD and Exam stress – How is your child coping?

4 Tips to help your teenager self regulate and stay calm through their GCSE's

Exam time can bring with it a range of stressful symptoms which can impact physically, mentally and emotionally and along with Autism, the effects can be even harder for our teenagers to self regulate.


Self regulating is our ability to maintain a state of arousal or response that is appropriate to any given situation or environmental input. It is a lot more complex than we realise to filter, engage, process, organise and control all of our experiences, cognition and emotions and sometimes especially when the pressure is on it can all just feel like a bit too much.


Physiologically added exam anxiety, stress and pressure can mean a greater production of stress hormones which can cause havoc within the nervous system, sensory responses and postural management leading to an increase of automatic fight, flight or fright mode reactions. It can influence sleep patterns which significantly affect the mood, dietary intake (craving sugar) and their standard level of threshold.


Mentally added exam stress can create a lot of anticipation and impact on the mind’s ability to focus, memory retain, regulate and when needed to the ability to switch off. So it may seek out even more stimulation or sensory input which can then feed into an overwhelming effect. This response can generate greater anxiety or resistance to doing anything or not wanting to even face the fact that there is an exam ahead.


Emotionally added exam anxiety can lead to further PDA (Pathological Demand Avoidance) and impact more severely feelings of out of control, feelings of safety, self deprivation, lack of self-esteem and belief in their own abilities. Even though they may not show these feelings on the outside, controlling behaviours may become more necessary.


So how can we help?


The first thing in trying to introduce something new or what you might class as helpful to someone who is highly anxious, stressed and with a different processing perception is to meet them where they are and allow them to come to it with ease. Secondly try and remember that what may seem like the smallest input of calm to an overriding nervous system can make a big difference.


Just a few examples of how you can meet them where they are and work from that place:


  • If your child is stressed and pacing (flight) and you want to teach them a calming technique you can introduce a mindfulness walking practice. Walking an 8 can be great!


  • If your child is non responsive, resistant and not wanting to engage (fright) you can start by giving them non-invasive pressure over their body with a gym ball or weighted item.


  • If your child is ready to defend or attack at any moment (fight) you can start with angry uptight breathing or a lion breath, which goes like this.


Kneeling on the floor with their bottom resting on their calves, have them place their hands on the knees and sit up straight (if possible). On an in breath fist the hands towards the chest, scrunch the mouth, eyes, nose and tense the face fully. On the out breath, release it all, extend the hands, open the mouth, stick the tongue right out and give a deep ROARRRRR until there is no breath left to roar. Repeat five times.


Tip 1: A physical, mental and emotional soother – BAREFOOT WALKING


Barefoot walking has been used as a meditation practice throughout time as it has many benefits. Our whole bodies are mapped in our feet and our feet send multiple messages to our whole body and neurology. So it can act as one way of rebooting the system. It is also very grounding, reduces stress whilst inducing a sense of reassurance and freedom. It brings the body and mind back to a natural state, engages proprioception, is a nice sensory feed and calms the nervous system.


If you have a garden that is great, get out walking in it. If not try and find a local, safe bit of green to create a nice barefoot walk circuit and try and repeat at a regular time throughout the week for maximum benefit.

You can also do mindful walking, this can be done in a few ways.

  • Ask your child to really concentrate on each foot as they take each footstep, they can look down and see the imprint it makes to help keep their attention. Or create a beat or sound for each footstep, or put coloured stickers on each foot and ask them to notice each colour as they walk.


Tip 2: An overall booster and calming strategy – BREATHING EXERCISES


Count 3 deep breaths regularly in through the nose and out through the mouth.

1 – 2 – 3 It sounds simple but how often are we just not actually breathing deeply at all and when there is cortisol running round the body, the breath becomes even more shallow and rapid. Regular deep breaths can make such a huge difference in oxygenating and refreshing body, mind and being.


I create a regular breathing pattern for my daughter when she is getting her shoes on to leave the house in the morning she does her 3 deep breaths. When she gets home and has something to eat she does her deep breaths and when we say goodnight she does her deep breaths.


You can also expand on this and create a little breathing meditation by on an in breath count to 4 and breath out to the count of 6 and repeat. If your child is happy and relaxed with this increase the counts and you could also get them to place their hands on their lower ribcage in line with the diaphragm so they get that anchor of where to direct their breath deeper down into the lungs moving away from chest breathing. Have a practice yourself, the benefits are glorious!


There are also some really good breathing apps around, check them out and download one that your child likes.


Tip 3: A brilliant soother for the nervous system and clarity of mind – UP THE WALL


Physically, mentally and emotionally lying with our legs above our head (inversions) has many positive effects, some of these are:

Can help relieve tired or tight muscles in the legs which people who are in a fight, flight or fright response a lot of the time may commonly have as the body is preparing for survival.

Improves the immune system by stimulating the lymphatic system, this system helps our body to eliminate toxins so is particularly important for asd as scientific research and my own personal experience suggests, that it can be more commonly harder to eliminate toxins from the body. Last and most importantly it is highly effective at calming the nervous system bringing it down into a more natural, less fired up state allowing for everything to relax. With a calmer nervous system the mind, body and being are more free to be.

Try and get your child to lie for some minutes at a time at a regular time of the day with their feet up-the-wall, if they can just BE and relax there that is brilliant or they may need a bit of stimulation to BE and relax there.


Tip 4: Enhance a sense of safety, positive calm and assist mind mapping – FINGER LOVE


Our fingers are full of neurological connections especially the pads and the tips. Just squeezing or hugging a finger can create an instant sense of ease, calm and connection and engage the proprioceptive sense. There are some lovely hand and finger meditations to do that are instantly self regulating. As an example one I advise my daughter before she is about to go into an exam is a thumb to finger exercise. Which is simply squeezing or placing the thumb on finger to each finger, they can say a positive affirmation associated to each finger, or count to 3 as they hold thumb to each finger or do it with their eyes closed. All of these techniques can be very helpful for enhancing instant connection and clarity.


FINGER LOVE is literally hugging each thumb through to all the fingers with the opposite hand or stroking each finger up and down. The hugging I would say is really good for self regulating again you can count with each finger hug, say a positive affirmation or do it with eyes closed.

For instance you could say for each squeeze or finger hug:

  • Thumb < I Care For Myself >
  • Pointer Finger < I Have Nothing To Fear >
  • Middle Finger < I Am Calm >
  • Ring Finger < I Am Happy >
  • Little Finger < I Am Me >


To find out more about any of these techniques or to discuss your child and what might work for them as an individual, email:




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