Using Analogies to teach Students with ASD to Manage Stress/Anxiety
Educators often use analogies to help students gain an understanding of difficult concepts. An effective analogy is one which takes information from something the student knows (understands) and draws attention to the similarity between that information and the new concept. The more the student connects with and understands the “known”, the more likely it is to be helpful when used as an analogy.
Students with ASD frequently have significant difficulty understanding and labelling emotions, and often experience difficulty managing their emotions in an appropriate way. Understanding and managing stress or anxiety may be particularly challenging, leading to the dreaded “melt down” or tantrum. Clearly, emotions can be one of those “difficult concepts” for students with ASD.
Many programs that have been developed to teach emotional regulation use concrete visual representations of emotional states (e.g., The Incredible 5 Point Scale by Kari Dunn Buron; The Stress Thermometer in Jeanette McAfee’s Navigating the Social World) as well as analogies. Michelle Garcia Winner and Stephanie Madrigal created the Superflex Program using a super hero / evil villain analogy that would appeal to students aged 7—10. In their stories, the evil villains are “Unthinkables” that prevent students from thinking of others, while Superflex is the superhero who teaches strategies to think flexibly. Elise Gagnon’s book, Power Cards, describes how to use a child’s special interests to motivate behaviour change, drawing analogies between the behaviour of a favorite character and the behaviour of the child. A Volcano in my Tummy by E. Whitehead uses a volcano analogy to help children learn to deal with anger. And Tony Attwood’s book, Exploring Feelings: Cognitive Behaviour Therapy to Manage Anxiety, uses the analogy of adding “tools” to one’s “toolbox” to cope with feelings.
Over the years, we have seen many talented teachers and parents help the child with ASD to understand and manage emotions using creative analogies. If you are trying to help your son, daughter or student to understand emotions, you might consider using or adapting one of the following analogies:
Glass of water – How hard is it to hold a glass of water for a minute? How hard is it to hold it for an hour? What if you had to hold it for the whole day? We need to put the glass of water (our stress or anxiety) down periodically in order to pick up again and carry on. The longer you hold on to the glass of water (stress) the heavier the glass becomes, until you can no longer go on. This analogy can be helpful in teaching individuals the importance of the restorative “break”.
Wild animal – Stress can be like a tiger. It is sneaky and can creep up on you. Tigers can be tamed using the right techniques such as providing food and rest.
Camp fire – You can make your campfire bigger and bigger by adding small pieces of wood (small stressors). If you keep adding more wood, before the fire has dealt with the wood you have already added, pretty soon the fire will get too big and could get out of control. The analogy is helpful for getting kids to understand the cumulative nature of stress and the need to “deal” with little stressors before they add up to an out of control reaction.
Bomb – Some days your bomb might have a short fuse and it takes only a few matches (stressors) before the bomb goes off. Other days your bomb might have a long fuse and it can take a lot of time or matches before it explodes. The analogy is good for helping students identify setting events that make it more likely that their bomb will have a short fuse (i.e. they might lose control). It can also be used to help kids identify what they can do to make a longer fuse.
Volcano – Feelings, like the magma inside the volcano, don’t always show on the surface. As the magma rises (due to the addition of stressors) it becomes more likely that the volcano will explode. If the magma cools, it goes back down. This student can be helped to discover what might “cool” his magma and can also help him learn to indicate how close to the surface the magma is, to avoid adding more stress.
Jug or bucket of water – If we keep adding water (stressors) to our jug or bucket, the water will eventually overflow. We need to pour off the extra water or create a leaky bucket if we are to continue to move forward in a stressful world.
Popsicle stick bridge – When well constructed, a popsicle stick bridge can hold a fair bit of weight, but eventually if we keep adding weight, the last stick we add will break the bridge. You can build an actual bridge with popsicle sticks labelled with things like friends, food, rest, breaks, etc. to represent things that help the student stay strong and resilient. Label popsicle sticks that represent the “load” (stressors) and demonstrate how the last stressor added can break the bridge. A house of cards could be used similarly. How many popsicle stick stressors can you put on your house of cards before it falls down?
The Army – Your body is constantly working to deal with stress… good and bad. When your body is dealing with a lot of stress your army gets depleted. You need to build your army back up again before you can handle more stress.
There is evidence that the most effective analogies are those that are created with input from the student, so talk about a variety of analogies and let the student choose the one that makes the most sense to him . Let him add details to elaborate on the concepts as needed.