Emotional Regulation

Emotional regulation involves being able to select and present the appropriate emotions to the demands of everyday life.

Many people can successfully regulate their emotions throughout the day despite being continually exposed to a wide variety of potentially arousing stimuli. However, for some people with autism, controlling the influence of emotional arousal on the organisation and quality of thoughts, actions, and interactions can be difficult.

Emotional regulation involves two processes:

  • Self-Regulation: The ability to independently attain an optimal level of arousal.
  • Mutual Regulation: The ability to solicit and secure assistance from others in regulating one’s arousal

How the characteristics of Autism Affect Emotional Regulation for Teenagers with Autism:

Social Communication:

  • Difficulty making needs known and getting them met
  • Difficulty recognising how emotions feel and expressing internal states
  • May make semantic errors in labelling own emotions for example, “angry” when they mean “worried”.

Cumine, V., Dunlop, J. and Stevenson, G. (2009) Asperger Syndrome: A Practical Guide for Teachers (David Fulton Books) Paperback – 13 refer to this as the student experiencing Emotional Lability.

Social Interaction:

  • May have a much lower tolerance for social interaction and may be unaware of social rules
  • They may have experienced several failed attempts at social interaction and consequently, may have preference for aloneness

Rigidity or Inflexibility of Thought:

  • Difficulty breaking out of unrealistic thought patterns once they are set.
  • Emotional outbursts due to the unpredictable nature of daily life.

Sensory Issues:

  • Emotional outbursts due to the sensory issues (e.g. too much stimulation, or hypersensitivities to some sensory input)
  • See Sensory Processing

Theory of Mind:

Theory of Mind means that you have an understanding that other people have thoughts and feelings that are different to your own.

  • They may have difficulty interpreting others emotions
  • Further reading on Theory of Mind and Autism can be found at, http://researchautism.net/autism-issues/cognition-and-autism/theory-of-mind-and-autism/theory-of-mind-publications

Executive Functions:

A cluster of high-order capacities, which include selective attention, behavioural planning and response inhibition, and the manipulation of information in problem-solving tasks. (Link, Calhoun. Autism and Executive Function)

  • May have difficulty inhibiting impulses and acting rationally, therefore are more likely to act on emotional compulsions
  • Further reading on the impact of Executive Function Issues and autism can be found at researchautism.net

Potential Signs of Difficulty with Emotional Regulation

Although, this is not a truly comprehensive list, we must be cautious as many teenagers with autism may display such characteristics for a variety of reasons

  • Mouthing or chewing on objects or fingers (this is particularly evident in individuals with severe learning difficulties)
  • Holding or hording familiar and comforting
  • Toe walking and rocking
  • Hand flapping
  • Humming
  • Removing oneself from a stressful situation
  • Absconding
  • Removing clothing
  • Preoccupation with specific topics/areas of interest
  • Adherence to rigidly rules
  • Echolalia

Strategies to teach teenagers with autism how to understand and manage emotions

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