Emotional Regulation

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

“Emotional regulation refers to the process by which individuals influence which emotions they have, when they have them, and how they experience and express their feelings. Emotional regulation can be automatic or controlled, conscious or unconscious, and may have effects at one or more points in the emotion producing process.”

(Gross, 1998, p. 275).

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 autistic children, teenagers and adults, controlling the influence of emotional arousal on the organisation and quality of thoughts, actions, and interactions can be difficult.

Emotional regulation involves two processes:

  1. Self-Regulation: The ability to independently attain an optimal level of arousal, to manage emotions and thus behaviour in accordance with the demands of the situation. In other words, to think through actions and responses before acting, inhibiting responses.

Dr Barry Prizant defines this as,

“Self-regulation is emotional regulation achieved independently by an individual. When effectively utilizing self-regulatory strategies, a person is able to achieve a more optimal state of arousal and emotional well-being. In typical development self-regulatory strategies become more sophisticated through socialization and experience. It is important to understand that self-regulatory behaviours vary as to how socially acceptable, conventional and effective they may be. Students and older individuals with autism and other developmental disabilities may be limited to more primitive, unconventional or ineffective self-regulatory strategies due to their neurologically-based disabilities. Some self regulatory patterns that are attempts to stay well regulated may be regarded by some as problem behaviours, such as repetitive motor behaviours (rocking, flapping, finger flicking), vocalizing to shut out loud or aversive sounds and avoiding certain people, activities, or settings.”

2. Mutual Regulation: The ability to solicit and secure assistance from others in regulating one’s arousal. It occurs in the context of social interaction. Effective mutual regulatory abilities allow a person to achieve a more regulated emotional state primarily due to the actions or presence of another person or other people.

With Dr Barry Prizant saying,

Mutual regulation is emotional regulation that occurs in the context of social interaction. Effective mutual regulatory abilities allow a person to achieve a more regulated emotional state primarily due to the actions or presence of another person or other people. At more advanced levels of ability, a person may actively seek out mutual regulation by requesting support or assistance from others. As with self-regulation, attempts to maintain a well-regulated state through mutual regulation vary along the dimensions noted above: social acceptability, conventionality and effectiveness. Examples of less conventional or socially acceptable strategies may include persistent questioning about upcoming events, seeking out particular kinds of sensory input from others through climbing on or “crashing” into others, or verbal or nonverbal expression of refusal or protest in response to demands that may be perceived as threatening and anxiety-provoking.”

How autism may affect emotional regulation for autistic teenagers:

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”. Some 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 stress responses due to the unpredictable nature of daily life.

Sensory Issues:

  • Emotional stress responses 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,

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. “Executive Functions: A Discussion of the Issues Facing Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders and Related Disorders” Calhoun

  • May have difficulty inhibiting impulses, thus impacting on social interactions. The autistic teenager may be more likely to act on emotional compulsions
  • Further reading on the impact of Executive Function Issues and autism.

Potential Signs of Difficulty with Emotional Regulation

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

  • Mouthing or chewing on objects or fingers, this is particularly evident with students 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 or areas of focused interest
  • Adherence to rigidly rules
  • Echolalia

Strategies to teach autistic teenagers how to understand and manage emotions

The Centre has a range of downloadable resources which may prove beneficial.

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