Six steps to help children with autism manage their emotions
Emotion Dysregulation is the inability to know how to innately manage the intensity and duration of negative emotions like fear, sadness, or anger. This is a particular challenge for those who have Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and face a situation that brings about strong negative emotions.
Studies have shown that there are long term physical, emotional, and behavioral effects from repeatedly having prolonged negative emotions. Emotion dysregulation is not considered a core deficit in ASD; however, both parents and clinicians have long emphasized the important role it plays in their negative emotional responses to situations, according to a study by Stanford University. These negative responses take the form of irritability, poor anger control, temper tantrums, self-injurious behavior, aggression, and mood dysregulation. The study found that the severity of core features of ASD—including deficits in social and communication functioning, repetitive behaviors, and sensory abnormalities—is significantly related to emotional dysregulation.
So here are some steps to help your child with ASD learn how to manage emotions, but it is important to note that your child needs to be able to identify and label emotions. Take these steps one at a time, with an understanding and practice in each before moving on to the next.
Step 1: Make a visual aid to chart emotions
Using now-common emojis, you can create a visual aid that shows the different levels of emotions that a child may feel as their emotions rise from contentment to anger. The child can pick their own labels and name the feelings they associate with each emotion. In a chart—perhaps on a dry-erase board or any board with sticky notes—you can put pictures of the emotions in one column and in the second column, labeled, "this is how I feel when…," the child can fill in examples that describe that situation.
Step 2: Use pictures or phrases that describe each level
By allowing the child to create their own labels and descriptions for the chart, they will come to recognize those emotions for themselves the more they are discussed. You can help your child by asking them to fill in prompts for such feelings. For example, at each level, you can ask them to complete the thought, "I feel happy when…" at each emotional picture. If the child is not responsive to such prompts, you can describe a scenario from start to finish and ask your child to apply an emotional response to the scenario you described and confirm how it corresponds to the pictures on the child's chart.
Step 3: Discuss appropriate emotions using examples
Once you and your child have lived through some examples on the chart you can discuss examples of ways to calmly identify how not to let emotions elevate into the next higher level of anger or anxiety. For example, if your child can't read his favorite book one night and it makes him extremely upset, you could point out that while that is a disappointing fact, the more appropriate perspective in that scenario would be in the "slightly upset" row instead of the intensely angry category and use another example of what would instead fall in the "intensely angry" row as comparison. As the old adage reminds us about putting things in perspective: "Don't make a mountain out of a molehill."
Step 4: Explain and demonstrate better coping
Using role-play, you can identify strategies your child can use in different scenarios as a way of explaining how to avoid getting "very upset," by using coping strategies when they notice they are approaching that first feeling of being "a little upset." With practice, the child can learn to self-identify the coping strategy that is more useful in each scenario.
Step 5: Play the "what if" game
If you can imagine a situation that would test your child's emotional regulation, verbalize that situation and ask your child to also imagine that situation and talk with them in a calm setting about what they could do if a situation like that happens in real life. Reinforcing for your child that they should know they have recovered from even more stressful situations in the past and it is just as important to learn from and then let go of those negative reactions once they have recovered from them.
Step 6: Stay calm and patient if you want to teach the same
These situations can be emotionally charged for all involved and you can find it easy to climb up that mountain yourself. Try to prepare yourself in advance as well by making a plan and having a step-by-step reminder list with phrases that worked in past practice that helped your child climb down the mountain during an escalating fear. It can be helpful to have that list at the ready to call upon should a similar situation arise. Remember you are always leading by example.
To learn more about how Centria Autism can help you and your family navigate a diagnosis and insurance verification, or treatment of ABA Therapy, please contact our team of specialists at (855) 423-4629.