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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
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
- Removing oneself from a stressful situation
- Removing clothing
- Preoccupation with specific topics/areas of interest
- Adherence to rigidly rules
Strategies to teach teenagers with autism how to understand and manage emotions
- Try and see the world/ situation from the teenagers point of view
- Model emotional expressions appropriate to the teenager’s developmental level (gestures, facial expressions, word combinations and sentences)
- Use visual supports to remind teenagers how to express emotion and to provide choices of coping strategies (coloured emotion thermometer pdf, 5 point scale, Best Practice resource)
- Try: SOCCSS: Situation, Options, Consequences, Choices, Strategies, Simulation Worksheet
- SODA: Stop, Observe, Deliberate, Act (SODA, Boch, 2007 article)
- Use visual supports such as an emotional thermometer video best practice resource, or even technology such as IPAD’s or smart phones to aid communication of emotions
- Social stories can also help teenagers identify, understand and respond appropriately to emotions (see case study)
- Sometimes it can be hard to talk about feelings, typing on a computer of writing in a journal may help some teenagers
- Some teenagers with autism and severe learning difficulties may find Intensive Interaction helpful. Intensive interaction is an approach to teaching the pre-speech fundamentals of communication to individuals with severe learning difficulties and/or autism and who are still at an early stage of communication development. intensiveinteraction.org