April 15, 2016

Supporting Emotional Expression and Regulation with ASD

Bonnie Marquis is a Positive Behavior Support Trainer with the WV ATC.
Emotions can be tricky for many with ASD. Trouble understanding and identifying even some basic emotions both within themselves and in others is more typical than not for people on the spectrum.  So often they seem to from “zero to 60” in an instant. The reasons for that are complex and individual to each person, but on going coaching and support by a supportive parent or family member can be critical to developing this important life skill. How to express emotions and doing so with an intensity level that is appropriate for a given situation can take considerable time and effort but is a foundational social skill necessary for successful relationships of all kinds.
Setting aside a time when both you and your family member are calm and relaxed to discuss this topic can help set the stage for future ‘coaching’ when the time comes. It’s important to stress that his feelings are perfectly valid and legitimate, whatever they may be, but that you wish to help with expressing them in ways that are appropriate and are not going to lead to more difficulties and potentially negative consequences. Try to take a supportive and problem solving approach and avoid judgment as much as possible. For some it is helpful to know this is a very common with ASD and part of how they are ‘wired’.  However, for their own benefit they can and should try to learn effective ways of coping and expressing themselves.

One of the best ways to do this is to practice with role play. For some it might also be helpful to make a visual list of some potential options (just words, words with pictures, or just pictures – let them decide, with guidance if needed).  Pick just 2-3 options and talk about how and when to use them.  For example, “walks/runs with permission” or “jumping on the trampoline” are effective ways to work through anger but are not always immediately available. Try to come up with several ideas with at least one option that can be accessed in just about any situation (deep breaths while silently counting to 10 for example). Again, just a few minutes of practice, discussion and role play will help and may also be an enjoyable experience that strengthens your relationship.
For some children, expressing strong emotions is tied with delaying or escaping unpleasant activities and it is important to be aware of this – if it is truly too difficult then you should reconsider the demands or offer more assistance. If it is merely unpleasant (cleaning up after himself, basic age-appropriate chores) then allow some expression of unhappiness (appropriate choices only) but remain firm in the demands. Maintaining a calm demeanor but insisting on the completion of the task is very effective, especially if it is followed by a fun or pleasant activity when and only when the first task is complete.   

As your child practices these new skills in expressing their strong emotions it is important that you coach them along with prompts and redirection, always accepting the FEELINGS as valid, even if it appears to you to be an overreaction, while encouraging the use of proper choices in how these feelings are expressed and processed. The stronger and more intense they feel the longer and more physically they may need to convey it. Allowing this time does not mean however that you need to ‘feed’ it with attention as that can become its own reward. This is why a visual cue of a proper choice can be helpful. Obviously legitimate major upsets can be nurtured and supported as you would anyone. This is where knowing your child and making judgment calls becomes key.
Discussing intensity of emotion will also be helpful. Many folks on the spectrum have tremendous difficulty with this concept (the “0-60” thing). So if a minor event causes major upset and they are ‘over-reacting’ allow them to first express themselves and validate the feeling, but then try and see if you could ask them if they were really “more irritated than furious” or “a little nervous rather than panicked”. And this mis-match is just as likely to occur with positive emotions as well! Getting overly excited and boisterous about what most would consider a mildly pleasant event can cause them to lose the respect of their peers and further contribute to some social challenges.

The timing of such comments will be important and you may need to make a note for yourself to visit this after the emotions have subsided, otherwise no matter how you phrase it they will perceive your comments as dismissing their feelings and may not be receptive to your efforts to help. You may also want to first focus on making good choices in how to show their feelings before moving on to more reasonably match the trigger to the level of intensity.
Resources such as the Incredible Five Point Scale developed by Kari Dunn Buron can be very helpful by turning this very abstract skill into a more concrete concept. If 5 levels are too sophisticated for your learner, you can adapt it to just include 3 or 4 levels. The ATC library has several copies of this resource for registered families to access.

Everyone has challenging emotions at times and we all find ourselves occasionally overwhelmed. But being ruled by feelings beyond our control on a near daily basis is an additional hurdle no one with an ASD should face without support. Patience, guidance, and understanding of how to work with these issues will improve the quality of life for everyone and can be an important step in sustaining mutually satisfying relationships.