The stressors of a typical school day are only compounded for students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). They often struggle with emotional self-regulation, or the ability to moderate feelings in situations that provoke intense reactions.
Traversing a crowded lunchroom can flood heightened senses, and difficulty understanding social dynamics during group projects can spark panic. To ease potential anxiety in school situations, parents can work with children with ASD at home to further develop their emotional regulation skills.
Emotional regulation is one component of executive functioning, which also includes behavioral management skills such as planning, attention, and flexibility (essentially, all the steps you take to manage your everyday behavior). While many people might consider these innate brain functions, psychologists stress that these executive functions involve behavior, and those with deficits can improve with learned or modified behaviors.
Emotional regulation, in particular, involves the ability to recognize a felt emotional state, evaluate the repercussions of reacting, and make a conscious choice to move toward a goal even with accompanying negative emotions. This is troublesome for students with ASD, who can have larger emotional reactions to stimuli and increased difficulty shaking off negative feelings.
Parents can help children with ASD manage their emotional sensitivity. It’s vital to explain that a strong reaction is a feeling and that feelings will pass. Parents can work with them on developing skills to initiate self-calming behaviors. Dr. Adel Najdowski suggests that children with ASD can actively develop emotional self-regulation through an emotional levels chart, as detailed in a recent piece from OnlinePsychology@Pepperdine, the online Master of Science in Behavioral Psychology program from Pepperdine University.
With the multistep emotional skills chart method, parents show children how to connect to their emotional states and develop effective coping mechanisms to work through discomfort that may arise in different scenarios. Each step should be mastered before moving on to the next. First, parents should create a two-column emotional skills chart (PDF, 130KB), ranging from very upset, to a little upset, to good, to very good. The right column leaves space for children to describe situations that provoke each emotion.
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After a child has assigned some of his/her lived experiences to the different emotional states, a parent can then teach them in what instances it would be useful to work toward having an adjusted intensity of reaction. For example, if a child says not being able to play a favorite video game because he/she has homework would make him/her very upset, a parent can gently inform the child this is a scenario to work toward feeling closer to a little upset about.
The parent can then teach the child coping mechanisms—such as taking some time alone, asking for help, or initiating deep breathing to use when this type of situation arises to calm emotions.
Once coping skills are introduced, parents can encourage children to practice these skills in an imagined scenario that may provoke strong reactions. The parent and child can brainstorm potentially recurring upsetting events in typical daily life—such as a noisy playground, an unexpected assembly, or a substitute teacher—and write down a step-by-step coping plan for the child to use in each situation. The parent should ask the child how he/she would respond and what specific actions might ease an overly intense emotional reaction.
Learning emotional regulation is a process, and progress can be measured at each step over time. First, parents can check in on how well their children are identifying their emotional experiences; then, as mastery progresses, they can analyze how coping mechanisms are wielded as an intervention.
Remember that patience is key: Students with ASD experience anxiety as they face unexpected or upsetting events—particularly at school—and parents should do their best to make home a place they can depend on to find understanding.
This article was featured in Issue 90 – Practical Ways to Build Skills for a Lifetime