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Published on July 10, 2018

Most Overlooked Signs of Autism in Children (And What Parents Can Do)

Most Overlooked Signs of Autism in Children (And What Parents Can Do)

Autism is much more prevalent than it was 20 years ago. When I was growing up, I didn’t know a single person with autism. Now as an adult with my own children, I was highly concerned during the first few years of my children’s lives that they would show symptoms of autism.

I knew the signs of autism but there are also some overlooked symptoms of which all parents should be aware. Knowing these signs can help a parent seek earlier intervention, which leads to better treatment outcome for the child long term.

How common is autism in children?

Autism is a concern for every parent now, as the rates of children being diagnosed with autism has increased steadily since the year 2000.

In the year 2000, the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) reported that autism was prevalent in 1 out every 150 children.[1] In most recent reporting by the CDC (which was recorded in 2014), the rate of autism is now 1 out of 59 children.

Boys are far more likely to have autism–four times greater, to be exact. These are alarming statistics that have parents baffled by the increased numbers of children with this disorder.

The exact cause of autism is unknown. Researchers are hard at work trying to find the cure, caus and physical blood test that would make it easier to diagnose.

For now, parents must rely on clinicians to diagnose their child with autism based on their observations of the child’s behavior along with information relayed from the parent to the clinician regarding their child’s behavior and development.

Catching autism earlier

Parents must be the advocate for their child. It is imperative that all parents know the signs of autism, so they can seek intervention as soon as possible. Research, as cited by the American Psychological Association has found that early intervention and treatment of autism provides greater results in the long run.[2] This is not a disorder where a parent should wait and see if the symptoms get worse over months and years.

Early intervention is the key to helping a child with autism. If you see early signs of autism in your child, immediate help should be sought in order to get your child the best chances for overcoming their symptoms long term. The APA stated the following regarding ages of children and the effectiveness of early intervention:

The latest findings are changing what we know about autism and in particular, stress the need for diagnosis and treatment before age 6 when treatment is known to be the most effective. The newest research suggests it’s even possible to reverse autism symptoms in some infants and toddlers or, more commonly, decrease the severity of the symptoms.

If you are concerned, then seek professional advice and medical support to have your child assessed. Even if they do not qualify for an autism spectrum diagnosis, you may be recognizing learning disabilities or behavioral abnormalities that can be addressed and treated.

It is remarkable how physical therapy, play therapy, occupational therapy and other modalities of therapy can provide a dramatic difference in improving abnormal or delayed behaviors when these treatments are provided over a dedicated period of time such as 6 months, a year or more.

Parents are responsible for recognizing the help that their child may need. Once recognized, the next step is finding reputable avenues for assessing and then treating the child.

Below are tips on how to recognize potential autism in your child, along with tips on what to do next if you do feel your child exhibits autistic symptoms.

Diagnosing autism

The DSM-5 (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders Version 5) is the diagnostic tool that clinicians rely upon for diagnosing a child with autism. Their observation of the child, interactions and communications with the parent are all utilized for assessing a child for a potential autism diagnosis.

Parents should be aware of the diagnosing criterion because this can help parents to recognize the symptoms and behavior associated with autism early on. For many parents with autistic children, they notice that their child had motor skill difficulties as an infant and even difficulties with social interactions before 1 year of age.

The key is, parents noticed these behaviors. It is helpful to know what kind of behaviors to look for in a child that may indicate autistic tendencies.

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Below are the diagnosing criterion for autism from the DSM- 5 so you as a parent can assess whether your child should be professionally assessed. These are found on the Autism Speaks website and are exactly as written in the DSM-5.[3]

A. Persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction across multiple contexts, as manifested by the following, currently or by history (examples are illustrative, not exhaustive, see text):

  1. Deficits in social-emotional reciprocity, ranging, for example, from abnormal social approach and failure of normal back-and-forth conversation; to reduced sharing of interests, emotions, or affect; to failure to initiate or respond to social interactions.
  2. Deficits in nonverbal communicative behaviors used for social interaction, ranging, for example, from poorly integrated verbal and nonverbal communication; to abnormalities in eye contact and body language or deficits in understanding and use of gestures; to a total lack of facial expressions and nonverbal communication.
  3. Deficits in developing, maintaining and understanding relationships, ranging, for example, from difficulties adjusting behavior to suit various social contexts; to difficulties in sharing imaginative play or in making friends; to absence of interest in peers.

Specify current severity: Severity is based on social communication impairments and restricted repetitive patterns of behavior.

B. Restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities, as manifested by at least two of the following, currently or by history (examples are illustrative, not exhaustive; see text):

  1. Stereotyped or repetitive motor movements, use of objects, or speech (e.g., simple motor stereotypies, lining up toys or flipping objects, echolalia, idiosyncratic phrases).
  2. Insistence on sameness, inflexible adherence to routines, or ritualized patterns or verbal nonverbal behavior (e.g., extreme distress at small changes, difficulties with transitions, rigid thinking patterns, greeting rituals, need to take same route or eat food every day).
  3. Highly restricted, fixated interests that are abnormal in intensity or focus (e.g, strong attachment to or preoccupation with unusual objects, excessively circumscribed or perseverative interest).
  4. Hyper- or hyporeactivity to sensory input or unusual interests in sensory aspects of the environment (e.g., apparent indifference to pain/temperature, adverse response to specific sounds or textures, excessive smelling or touching of objects, visual fascination with lights or movement).

Specify current severity: Severity is based on social communication impairments and restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior (see Table 2).

C. Symptoms must be present in the early developmental period (but may not become fully manifest until social demands exceed limited capacities, or may be masked by learned strategies in later life).

D. Symptoms cause clinically significant impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of current functioning.

E. These disturbances are not better explained by intellectual disability (intellectual developmental disorder) or global developmental delay. Intellectual disability and autism spectrum disorder frequently co-occur; to make comorbid diagnoses of autism spectrum disorder and intellectual disability, social communication should be below that expected for general developmental level.

Note: Individuals with a well-established DSM-IV diagnosis of autistic disorder, Asperger’s disorder, or pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified should be given the diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder. Individuals who have marked deficits in social communication, but whose symptoms do not otherwise meet criteria for autism spectrum disorder, should be evaluated for social (pragmatic) communication disorder.

Specify if:

  • With or without accompanying intellectual impairment
  • With or without accompanying language impairment
  • Associated with a known medical or genetic condition or environmental factor
    (Coding note: Use additional code to identify the associated medical or genetic condition.)
  • Associated with another neurodevelopmental, mental, or behavioral disorder
    (Coding note: Use additional code[s] to identify the associated neurodevelopmental, mental, or behavioral disorder[s].)

With catatonia (refer to the criteria for catatonia associated with another mental disorder, pp. 119-120, for definition) (Coding note: Use additional code 293.89 [F06.1] catatonia associated with autism spectrum disorder to indicate the presence of the comorbid catatonia.)

Red flags

The diagnosing criterion is helpful but it can also be cumbersome. It is a great deal of information and clinical wording, thus some basic red flags are also helpful for parents who are concerned that their child may be autistic.

Autism Speaks provides a list of red flags for parents to watch for concerning a potential autism diagnosis:[4]

Possible signs of autism in babies and toddlers:

  • At 6 months of age: Lack of smiling while socially interacting with people, lack of happy expressions when interacting with people, and/or lack of eye contact.
  • At 9 months of age: Still a lack of smiling, failure to begin non verbal communications such as noises meant to get their care giver’s attention when wanting something, and/or failure to begin making vocal sounds for the purposes of interacting with other people.
  • At 12 months of age: No babbling or attempts to form baby-talk and words for communicating with other, failure to begin use of non verbal motions to communicate their wants such as pointing or gesturing what they want or need, and/or does not respond when their name is said or called out.
  • At 16 months of age: Failure to say any words. No attempts to begin verbal communication with actual words. There may be seen a disinterest in the child to learn or try to form words through babbling or making verbal noises that sound like the start of words. Caregivers will notice the lack of interest in verbalization by this age.
  • At 24 months of age: Still lacking age appropriate verbal communications. They may have achieved the ability to say one word at a time such as ball, mom, or drink. However, they lack the ability to form phrases or put two words together.

There are also red flags to look for at any age:

  • Loss of previously acquired skill. For example, a child who was once using phrases and almost forming sentences now only uses one word at a time to communicate their wants and needs.
  • As early as toddler age, they appear to prefer being alone. They lack a general desire to interact with their peers. For example, when at a play setting with children their own age a caregiver will notice lots of children playing together while their child choses to play on their own and seems content to do so. If a child is playing on their own and expresses sadness by saying “nobody is playing with them” or “nobody likes them”, thus they play on their own, this child does not fit the category, as they are interested in playing with others. It is the lack of interest in playing with others that is a red flag at any age.
  • The child not only prefers but requires a stringent routine. Any deviation by the caregiver of this routine will cause the child to become anxious, stressed, or even distressed. They don’t just “go with the flow” when changes arise. They show an emotional dependence on their routine, and when it is changed they are visibly upset.
  • They exhibit echolalia. This is the repeating of words and phrases that they hear from others. What they are repeating does not seem to have significant meaning. For example, they may hear someone say “red ball” during a conversation. The child will repeat “red ball” over and over again, like a broken record. They can also imitate and repeat motions of others. Some autistic parents also report that their child fails to initiate their own words, instead their child only repeats words that they hear.
  • Exhibiting repetitive behaviors. Some of the most common are flapping, rocking or spinning. Some of these behaviors are age appropriate, such as spinning. However, it is the continual repetition of the behavior that should be of concern to parents.
  • Has difficulty understanding the feelings of others. To others it may seem that they are disconnected to people and their feelings in general.
  • Has sensitivity with any of their senses. They will show a more intense than normal reaction to certain sounds, smells, textures, tastes, or lighting. Their reaction can range from very intense to unusual. The key for caregivers to note is the consistency of this reaction when the same sense is affected.
  • Language delays of any kind combined with any of the other warning flags.
  • Remaining nonverbal.
  • The child has highly restricted interests. This can be shown by their fixation on only playing with one kind of toy to the exclusion of interest in any other toys.

Keep in mind that a child with autism can have just a few of these signs and difficulties. Other children who may have some of these difficulties, may not qualify for a clinical diagnosis of autism.

Again, it is the discretion of the clinician and their interpretation of the child’s behaviors aligning with the DSM-5 criterion.

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The overlooked signs of autism

Some of the red flags listed above are actually often overlooked or misunderstood by parents. They should be understood by more parents in order to have children diagnosed earlier. Thus, more in depth explanation and understanding of the five most overlooked red flags is needed.

Like mentioned previously, earlier recognition, diagnosis, and treatment leads to better outcomes. This means a more well adjusted child in the long run, when treatment begins at the earliest possible time.

Below are those five red flags with greater explanation and examples:

1. Highly restricted interests

Children with autism can exhibit symptoms of restricted interests. This is sometimes not fully understood, because it is more than just having an interest in only a few toys or activities.

For example, I know one child with autism who is obsessed with Legos. You may be thinking, I know kids who are obsessed with Legos, but they are not autistic. You are right, not all kids obsessed with an interest are autistic. However, there are some defining behaviors that make an autistic child different.

A child obsessed who is autistic will likely be so enamored with their Legos to the exclusion of interest in playing with other toys. Their obsession can last for months or years, until they find a new interest to fill their obsession.

They also have a tendency to engage in play that in described by some parents as OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder). The child wants things in a certain order or certain color scheme.

This interest is obsessive in nature and when others try to intercede in the play and alter the order of things, the autistic child will become highly anxious or upset.

Also, when an autistic child with highly restricted interests has their toy or object of interest taken away, they become anxious and even distressed.

Signs to be on the lookout with highly restricted interests include an obsession with a toy or activity to the exclusion of other toys and activities, anxiety when their interest is taken away, and play that is highly orderly and can be described by parents as obsessive in maintaining certain qualities of order. This order can include numbering, size, colors, etc.

2. Repetitive behaviors

One of the more familiar repetitive behaviors of some autistic children is head banging. This often begins when the child is younger and will repetitively bang their head against a wall or object.

While many of the repetitive behaviors are done for self soothing purposes, head banging can be harmful or dangerous to the child.

There are other repetitive behaviors associated with autism that are less well known. Some of these other behaviors include hand flapping, spinning, rocking and repeating words or phrases.

Repeating order also falls within this category. For example if a child lines up their cars in a particular color or number order and does this repeatedly, this is repetitive behavior.

It is important to note that some repetitive behaviors occur as part of normal development. Just because your child lines up their toys does not mean that they are autistic. It is the constant repetition of these behaviors and the number of repeated behaviors that the child exhibits is what a clinician will look at when assessing a child for autism.

Autistic children typically exhibit between four and eight different repetitive behaviors. The behavior is often described as self-soothing. Which also means, if their behavior is interrupted it can cause them stress and anxiousness.

3. Unusual or intense reaction to smells

It is common for children with autism to have strong reactions to loud noises. Many of these children are also sensitive to certain clothing on their bodies. Tags on clothing can often be a culprit of many an upset autistic child.

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Smell is another sense that is affected by autism. Every autistic child varies on their sensitivities and their reactions to those sensitivities, but smell is one that is often overlooked.

Autistic children can have strong reactions to certain smells that cause them great distress and anxiety. For example, a normal child will smell a skunk and respond by saying “yuck” and plug their nose. An autistic child on the other hand may start crying and yelling loudly. They have a severe over-reaction to certain smells.

Parents can become so accustomed to their child’s outbursts that they themselves become anxious when they smell the offending odor that sets off their child, because they know it will result in such an awful outburst from their child.

Conversely, CNN reported that recent research has shown that children with autism will either show an exaggerated response (such as an outburst) to strong smells or a numbness to strong smells.[5]

Many autistic children don’t show a differentiation in their response to good smells versus bad smells. They showed little reaction to extreme smells of any kind. They appear to have more of a numbness to smell. Not that they can’t smell, but that they don’t react to smells.

4. Routine changes disturb the child

Routines can be a good thing, which is why this symptom and red flag of autism is often overlooked. Parents may think that their child is just accustomed to things are certain way and like their particular routine.

However, if a child becomes so dependent on a routine that any changes cause them to react severely (such as outbursts or fits) or high levels of anxiety are exhibited, it may be an indicator of autism.

Some autistic children will have such awful reactions to any deviation from their routines that it quite disruptive to the rest of the household.

Routine can be good but when a child is so dependent on their routine that it causes emotional distress when it is changed in any way, it may be an indication of autism.

5. Difficulties understanding feelings of others

Children with autism often display emotions differently than others. They may show a lack of empathy or zero reaction to a distressful situation of others.

For example, they may witness a child break a bone on a playground and they appear completely unfazed. This does not mean that they did not emotionally process the situation or have feelings about what is happening in front of them. It simply means that their reaction is different than that of most of the population.

Their inability to show reactions to situations where most people would typically show reaction is common with autistic individuals. When they are unable to express their own emotions, it makes it more difficult for them to understand and process the expressions of emotions of others.

They lack the innate ability of normal emotional expression but this does not mean they do not feel on the inside. It is that they lack the ability to express emotions normally. Therefore, when others express their feelings and emotions to a person or child who is autistic the reaction may nothing.

The lack of reaction to the feelings and emotions of others is what is commonly missed by friends and family. They interpret the behavior as a lack of empathy. Parents may think their young child may just need to develop more to show empathy when difficult or sad situations arise.

However, it is not about development as even toddlers will show sadness when others are crying and upset. Even babies will often begin to cry when they hear other babies crying. The autistic child will often appear unfazed by these emotions expressed by other children. They remain neutral.

It is the lack of expression of their emotions that is misunderstood. Their own lack of expressing emotions makes it difficult for them to understand the expression of emotions of others.

Benefits of an official diagnosis

Some parents will steer clear of clinical diagnosing because they fear that their child will be labeled. Labels can carry a stigma.

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However, there is great benefit to an official DSM-5 diagnosis from a clinician for a child. The child can receive help is the biggest benefit to getting a diagnosis.

If a child doesn’t have a diagnosis, it is difficult to get the proper help for that child. How can you get in to see a doctor that specializes in autism if you will not allow a diagnosis to happen? Your doctor will likely have great difficulty referring you to specialists such as occupational therapy without a diagnosis or reason for that referral.

Another benefit is planning for the child’s educational future. In the public education system within the United States, your child can receive an IEP (Individualized Education Plan) if your child has an autism diagnosis. This will be an educational plan that the teachers, counselors and other school staff implement with the parent involvement.

This plan provides for specialized services within the school and classroom, such as occupational therapy, physical therapy, reading specialists, etc. for better helping and serving the child in the school environment. An IEP plan will help the child get the services that the need and deserve. These services are typically free to the parents and are paid through the school district monies.

Another reason to have your child assessed for autism if they present any of the red flags previously listed is that you can rule out other diseases and disorders as the cause. Knowing what they have and having a path forward for treatment is empowering.

If your child is diagnosed with autism, you no longer have to wonder if it could be another disease or problem plaguing your child. You also now have a name for the cause and you know that there is help available for this specific disorder.

Your child is the same person they were before the diagnosis or label. Don’t allow a diagnosis to change the way you think of your child. The only thing that has changed is your ability to get them the help they need.

With a proper diagnosis you now have a starting point. You have a diagnosis and there are specialists around the globe who treat this disorder.

Knowing what your child has and being able to therefore proceed with help for them is loving them greatly. They are still the same child they were before and after the diagnosis was given to them.

What to do if you are concerned

You can access the Modified Checklist of Autism in Toddlers (Revised version) via this link free: M-CHAT-R. You can take this free online test and it will provide you with results and information regarding your individual child and their potential for having autism.

This information can be helpful if you are debating whether to contact your health care professional regarding your concerns. You can make an educated decision based on the results from the M-CHAT-R.

If your child is at risk, according to the results, you should immediately contact your health care provider, such as your pediatrician. They can help you in your next steps.

There is also a free download from the Autism Speaks website for parents: First Concern to Action Tool Kit. This kit provides concerned parents with a great deal of helpful information such as the following:

  • Information on normal versus abnormal childhood development by age.
  • Helpful tips on what do to if you are concerned about your child’s development.
  • Information on how to get your child evaluated/ tested for autism.
  • What treatment options are available for autism, if needed.

The download is completely free and will further help a parent who is concerned about their child and their development. The earlier the intervention, the better the child will respond to therapies in the long run.

Detection and treatment of autism early is of greater help to a child who may be affected. Don’t hesitate if you think your child may be affected.

Download the First Concern to Action Tool Kit above today if you have any concerns. The kit will provide you with direction, hope, and information you need to know if you think your child is autistic.

Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

Reference

[1]Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) Data & Statistics
[2]American Psychological Association: Catching autism earlier
[3]Autism Speaks: DSM-5 Diagnostic Criteria
[4]Autism Speaks: Learn the signs of autism
[5]CNN: Study finds children with autism don’t react to good and bad smells

More by this author

Dr. Magdalena Battles

A Doctor of Psychology with specialties include children, family relationships, domestic violence, and sexual assault

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Published on November 12, 2018

10 Strategies to Keep Moving Forward When You’re Feeling Extra Stuck

10 Strategies to Keep Moving Forward When You’re Feeling Extra Stuck

We have all felt stuck at some point in our lives. Perhaps you feel stuck right now.

Maybe you’re feeling a little stuck working on a creative project, like writing an article or painting a piece of art. Perhaps you started a new business, took on a major project at work or began a new health or fitness regimen.

Your initial excitement has worn off and you’re now feeling stuck, confused or overwhelmed by how to keep progressing forward. Or maybe, you’re a lot stuck. You feel trapped in a job you hate, a relationship that isn’t working, a boatload of debt, or a life that has little resemblance to the one you’d imagined.

Let’s be honest. Regardless of how stuck you are, it’s a terrible feeling. Feeling trapped and unsure how to move forward can lead to feelings of, confusion, angst, hopelessness, insecurity and overwhelm.

Sometimes we just want to throw in the towel and give up. But don’t give up just yet.

Whether you feel just a ‘little stuck’ or like you’re stuck in dry concrete; trying to make a small or big decision; wondering what you’re doing with your life), feeling trapped in a job, overwhelmed by debt, unhappy in a relationship or life that isn’t the one you want to live, these 10 strategies can help you move forward again.

1. Take a step back

Your first step forward when you feel stuck is to take a step back. Often, we try to get unstuck by pushing forward with sheer force or just trying harder. But as Einstein said,

“No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.”

Access a different level of thinking by assessing your current situation from a new viewpoint. Whenever I’m working with clients who feel stuck, this is the first thing I ask them to do.

I have them think about where they are, what got them here and what they really want. When you step back from your life, career, and challenges and look from a bit of a distance, you see things from a different perspective.

Your Turn:

Imagine you are lost in the woods. You could keep moving forward looking for your way out. You could panic and go in circles. You could head back the way you came. You could, as I learned in camp, just sit still until help arrives.

Imagine instead that you could stop, take a deep breath and zoom out from your situation. Imagine you could fly above it all as if you were in a helicopter and look down at yourself among the trees.

What could you see or notice differently from this perspective – a different route, people there to support you, the way out is closer than you thought?

Another way to ‘zoom out’ is to look at your situation as a neutral observer. Imagine you’re a fly on the wall watching your life. What insights or advice would you give yourself?[1]

2. Get specific

It’s hard to move forward until you fully understand why you are stuck. You have to get specific and identify what’s really going on. You must name it to tame it.

A great mentor of mine once said,

“A well-defined problem presents its own solution”.

If you want to find a solution, you must truly understand the underlying problem. This is one of the premises of coaching. When you dig a little deeper to the real issue/challenge/blockage, solutions tend to present themselves.

For example, there are big differences between, ‘I feel stuck’ and ‘I feel stuck because I’m overwhelmed with the details’ or ‘I feel stuck because I’m worried what people are going to think of me.’ Once you name it, you are more likely to be able to tame it.

One of the most important questions I ask clients is, ‘What’s getting in the way?’ When they answer, the next question is always, ‘What else?’ We continue along this route until we feel we’ve gotten to the real, underlying issue(s).

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Your Turn:

Seek to uncover the underlying issues that are getting in your way and stopping you from progressing. You can do this by journaling, talking to someone who knows you well, or simply taking the time to ask yourself these questions.

Once you name it, perhaps the solution will then present and tame itself.

3. Reconnect to your ‘why’

Feeling stuck is often because you’ve lost sight of the bigger picture and what’s important. You’ve lost your why.

Why did you start this in the first place? What reasons, values or passions drove you to make this change in your life? What picture do you have for yourself, your business and your life? Why are you wanting to achieve or accomplish this?

By reminding yourself of your original intention and purpose, it gives you the intrinsic motivation to get back on track and move ahead.

Connecting to your deeper ‘why’ will be the fuel that keeps you going, even through tough times and roadblocks.

Your Turn:

Whatever you’re stuck on right now, grab a journal and ask yourself, “Why is this important to me?” ,”Why did I start this in the first place?” “What am I trying to achieve here and why is that important to me? “

4. Brainstorm Your Options

We often feel stuck because we don’t see any way out from our current situation – we feel we don’t have any options.

By brainstorming ideas and possibilities, you expand your mind and open your thinking to finding a new solution. When you can see potential options, you won’t feel so trapped anymore. 

This is not about deciding the one thing or making the right choice, it’s about allowing your creative mind to expand and see all the potential possibilities. We often dive straight into finding the right one and eliminate anything that doesn’t feel perfect.

That’s why so many people feel stuck. They are attempting to find the next right career, the best way to handle a situation or the one perfect idea. This can lead to a lot of stress and analysis paralysis.

The reality is that there is no single best or right. There are many possibilities that could work for your situation. It’s about the next step right now.

If you hate your career, what new potential careers are on your mind? List them all out – even the ones that seem unrealistic or silly.

If you’re unhappy in your relationship, what can you do? There are likely a lot more options than you’ve considered. What are they?

Your Turn:

Make a list of options for your current situation – as crazy or ‘out there’ as they might be.

When you think you’ve thought of everything, ask yourself, ‘What other options are there?’ This allows you to dig deeper and see ideas you might not have otherwise explored.

Then, and only then can you start to identify the way forward.

5. Take a brain break

Full disclosure, I’m stealing this strategy from my 7-year-old daughter’s second-grade teacher.

The other night I was helping my daughter with homework, she was getting super frustrated and wasn’t sure what to write in a letter to her big buddy. She was on the verge of tears when she looked up and asked, ‘Mom, can I take a brain break?’ She got up from the table, walked downstairs to her room and played with her stuffed animals. When she came upstairs a short time later, she was as happy as could be and jumped right into her writing.

We could all use a brain break when we’re stuck. A chance to shift focus gives our brains a chance for quiet; it takes the pressure off so we can come back with a fresh mind and new perspective.

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When we take a brain break, it refreshes our thinking and helps us discover another solution to a problem or see a situation through a different lens. The brain break actually helps to incubate and process new information.[2]

A great brain break is to do something physical that gets you in flow. Take a hike, a run, a walk around the block. Another well-known brain break is meditation – which has so many proven benefits I can’t even begin to name them all. Try it, it works.

I have one friend who says taking a shower helps her get unstuck. ’Somehow good thoughts come up in that silent space.’

Your Turn:

What kind of brain breaks can you give yourself? Which would be most helpful?  It’s not just for second graders anymore.

6. Let go of what’s not working

Have you ever walked through the mud and had your boot get stuck and your foot fly out? When this happens, you usually have two choices: either put your boot back on and keep plodding through, repeating the frustration as it continually gets stuck, or you can take off that boot and move forward.

The same is true in life. When we get stuck, we often stay in the mud and try to drag our boot along. We keep doing what’s clearly not working. The boot represents limiting beliefs, old habits, or stories you’re telling yourself.

Remember in the movie “UP” when Mr. Fredricksen is trying to get his house to fly? It was too heavy. He had to dump out his belongings until the house was light enough to lift off.

Same is true here; you’ve got to get rid of the emotional baggage you’re carrying so you can move forward and fly.

Take my client *Lucy for example. She was stuck trying to figure out what she wanted next in her life and career. She was having trouble finding a job she was interested in. Through our work together, we uncovered that Lucy had an interesting belief: that having a job and being happy were mutually exclusive.

She believed she couldn’t have a job and be happy at the same time. This meant she was either going to be jobless and joyful or employed and miserable. In order to move forward in her career search, she needed to take off this ‘boot’ and believe she could find a job where she could, in fact, be happy.

Your Turn:

What’s holding you back? An old habit, limiting belief or story you are telling yourself? How can you reframe your thinking in order to change the direction you are headed?

7. Know what you need to get unstuck

We all have a way in which we operate that is unique to us. When you understand how you’re wired, you can understand more specifically what you need to get unstuck. It’s like your own personal formula for moving forward.

For me, I need a crystal-clear picture of what I’m trying to achieve and a big, tangible goal to reach for.  When I don’t have a clear picture of the end result or challenging target I’m trying to hit, I feel stuck and demotivated. 

Here are some common needs: 

Astep-by-step plan, to understand why something is important, deadlines and impending pressure, unconditional encouragement and support, to think things through, connecting to a deeper meaning, freedom, and flexibility, and certainty.

Do you relate to any of these?

Your Turn:

What do you need to get unstuck? If you’re not quite sure, you might want to check out the I.D.™ (Instinctive Drives™). It’s a tool I’ve used for almost 20 years (and have all my clients take). It helps you understand what you need to be at your best, including what will help you get unstuck.

8. Shift your state

When you’re in a stuck state, it actually creates a cycle of ‘stuckness.’ Get yourself out of there!

Instead of placing all your focus and energy on the problem, shift your focus and energy to another area of your life. Go do something that brings you joy; spend time with someone you love.

Do anything to shift your state and mood. This will switch your downward cycle of ‘doom and gloom’ into an upward cycle of ‘hope and possibility’.

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A great way to shift your state is to practice gratitude. So, you hate your job. Practice gratitude for other areas of your life. Does it support your family? Allow you to work remotely?

I’m not saying you should stay in a job you hate, I’m just recommending that you get perspective. A state shift brings energy, hope, and positivity into your mindset…keys to getting out of that dreaded stuck cycle.

Your Turn:

What always puts you in a good mood? What brings you joy, happiness or fulfillment?   Do it! And make sure to practice gratitude. Try this: each morning for the next week, write down three things you are grateful.

9. Take action

Getting into action is critical to getting unstuck. There’s no substitute for momentum. Action enables further action, while inactivity creates inertia, self-doubt, and confusion.

I love this quote from Simon Sinek:

‘If we think of everything we have to do, we feel overwhelmed. If we do the one thing we need to do, we make progress.’

My client *Marcus had just made a career move and was setting out to start his own wellness business. The biggest problem getting in his way? Inertia.

The more he thought about what he was going to do, the bigger the endeavor began to feel. The more he explored the risks, challenges, and his extensive to-do list, the more he felt overwhelmed. He was stuck. 

However, once he took action, starting with quick wins, he gained momentum and was able to move forward and tackle bigger and more challenging steps. Once he broke through his inaction, he was on a roll.

My grandfather always told us: a path leads to a path. We can’t know what the future holds and trying to figure out everything before we start is a recipe for disaster.

Know that a path will lead to a path, a step will lead to the next step, but you have to start walking first. 

Your Turn:

What’s the next step you can take to move forward? Where is there a quick win?

When you think about your first (or next) step, keep it small and achievable to get the momentum going.

10. Reach out for help

This summer, my Dad took his new truck and my twin daughters on a trip to the Oregon sand dunes. Only a few minutes into the adventure, they got really stuck. They tried shoveling sand and getting out on their own, but they couldn’t. Nearly an hour later, (which felt like an eternity stuck in the middle of a pelting sandstorm), a little dune buggy came along. My Dad’s truck was six times its size, but all they needed was a little pull. They hooked up the wench and within minutes, they were free.

We can all use a little help when we’re stuck. This might be talking to a good friend who knows and understands you or reaching out to get advice from someone who’s been in a similar situation to yours.

Maybe it’s hiring a coach who will ask powerful questions to help you see things from a different angle, a therapist who can uncover hidden roadblocks or a consultant to share opinions and experiences.

When you’re on your own, it can feel hopeless, overwhelming and just plain impossible. But, just a little push or pull from someone can quickly change your trajectory.

While this may seem like one of the easiest strategies, it is actually one of the hardest to do. Why? Even though we are biologically wired to help each other, many of us find it challenging to reach out.

There’s a reason for this:[3]

‘Asking for help exposes us to numerous possible social threats, which is why it’s so uncomfortable. It can feel like a tacit admission of weakness, which lowers our status, and can be an invitation for scorn. It creates uncertainty, and invites the possibility of rejection.’

Your Turn:

Who is your dune buggy? Who can you reach out to ask for help right now?

Not ready to reach out to someone just yet? Maybe you can try asking the universe. Some call this prayer, others spiritual guidance,  others faith.  Whatever you call it, reach out to someone, somewhere, somehow…now.

Afraid to ask for help? Here’s how to change your outlook to aim high!

Bonus: When all else fails, be patient

Sometimes when we’re stuck, we just need to practice patience. Patience that the answer is coming; the shift is going to happen. Patience that you’ve done all that you can and now, it’s time to wait and see what comes back to you.

I’m not suggesting you wait for months or years; but sometimes we expect things to change quickly, yet things take time. This is especially true for big life decisions and transitions or when there are others involved, like your relationships or job.

I love the line from Max Ehrmann’s’ Desiderata:

’…whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.’  

Trust the unfolding and know that sometimes it may take a little longer than you’d like.

There’s usually a good reason, even if you can’t see it. Maybe it’s not time to move forward or make changes just yet. Maybe you don’t have all the information you need, and when you do, you’ll quickly make progress. Maybe you’re actually stuck where you need to be right now.

When I was in my most recent major career transition, feeling stuck and wondering if I would ever figure out my next step, this quote from Chinese Philosopher Lao Tzu was exactly what I needed:

‘Do you have the patience to wait until your mud settles and the water is clear? Can you remain unmoving till the right action arises by itself?’

Stay strong. Be patient. The more stuck you are, the greater the freedom will feel.

You’re going to be okay. It won’t always be like this. Keep putting one foot in front of the other. Hang in there and trust the process. Your breakthrough is coming.

Final Thoughts

Which of these strategies feel like they will work best for you and your current stuck situation?

You don’t have to use all of them, it just takes one.

Remember, any movement, momentum or shift will help get you unstuck and moving forward again. Besides, it’s never too late to start things over! Here’s the proof:

How to Start Over and Reboot Your Life When It Seems Too Late

Featured photo credit: Michał Parzuchowski via unsplash.com

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