Your child with autism enjoys routine and knowing what to expect next — and when everything goes according to plan, all is well. But when situations change and there’s an interruption to life as normal, your child may have a strong reaction.
That’s not unusual because children on the autism spectrum sometimes have trouble managing emotions, says Madison Lee, Board Certified Behavior Analyst with Gateway Pediatric Therapy in Livonia.
“If there is a change in routine or their routine is interrupted in some way, it can cause some level of emotional reaction,” says Lee. “It might even be caused by having someone new in their environment or being told they have to wait or that they can’t have something they want.”
Each child is unique, but some might get upset and cry, express anger, try to access the item they want or ask repeatedly in the hope the adult will give it to them, Lee says. But there are effective ways parents can help their child with managing emotions and learn the skill of emotional regulation.
“Emotional regulation is being able to use coping strategies, like taking deep breaths or counting to 10, so they can manage strong emotions when they feel them,” Lee explains.
Why managing emotions is challenging
Being able to regulate emotions is a complex skill, says Lee, and children with autism are often missing what they need, like the ability to communicate and have social interactions, to learn these skills early on.
“A large part of developing emotion regulation is by watching others and using coping strategies,” she explains. “If they have a hard time communicating basic wants and needs, they can’t state their emotions and how it makes their body feel.”
The area of the brain that regulates emotions doesn’t fully develop until the teen years or adulthood, Lee says, so managing emotions isn’t a skill that will be mastered by the age of 10 or 12. “If your child is having emotional outbursts or a hard time with a situation, continuing to support them and teaching them in the moment will be very valuable to them,” she says.
How you can help
Work with your child in the moment to help them regulate their emotions and learn coping skills by engaging them in a physical activity that helps them focus, suggests Lee. “Deep breathing is really great, so ask your child to imagine holding up a flower to smell as they inhale. Or, they can exhale and imagine blowing on a pinwheel to make it spin,” she says.
Or, try volcano breathing. “Stand up and inhale your arms up in the air, then exhale your arms down like lava flowing,” she describes. Younger children can try a sensory activity, such as squeezing a stress ball or running their fingers through slime or shaving cream. These activities provide sensory input, require focus and help regulate emotions.
And, as always, reach out to your ABA therapy team for support. “We incorporate coping strategies into treatment plans and model the use of coping strategies at home, at school or any situations where strong emotions might arise,” Lee says. BCBAs are also available to collaborate with other mental health professionals, such as counselors, to target emotional regulation skill-building. Ask your child’s BCBA to devote some time during parent training to share some emotion regulation techniques that you can try at home.
Consistent support from family members and ABA therapy teams will help your child learn valuable lifetime skills.
“Children who have coping strategies they use to regulate their emotions are more likely to have positive social interactions and more frequent interactions with peers,” Lee says. “And, in the long term, they will have greater success developing friendships and relationships with others.”
Gateway Pediatric Therapy offers best-in-class ABA therapy at 13 locations in Michigan. Visit gatewaypediatrictherapy.com.