Emotional Therapy: How to Bridge the Gap For People With Special Needs
If humans are anything, first, we are emotional beings. Newborn babies in the NICU are proven to have increased chances of survival directly correlated with how much physical contact they receive. This has been the root of hospital volunteer baby huggers programs in which they bring in volunteers to simply hug and cuddle infants to increase their thriving and mortality rates.
All children must be guided in life to manage emotions, connect and relate emotionally to others. Emotional maturity then comes with guidance, age, experience, hormonal changes, upbringing, and environmental factors.
Coping, self-regulating, and navigating emotions are skills required to develop good emotional health, learn to create healthy boundaries and negotiate relationships of every type. There are many adults lacking the appropriate emotional skills for any number of reasons, let alone neurotypical children.
How much more do our autistic children undergo these abstract emotional challenges especially since their brain is receiving and processing all informational input, even the most primal natural need—a hug —differently? How do you socially and emotionally connect the autistic child? You have to build a bridge, and that is precisely what emotional therapy does. If all the other therapies are life-support, emotional therapy is the will to live—the hug—if you will.
Emotional therapy provides a controlled environment without the immediacy of being in life’s unpredictable moments to manage all the emotional aspects of autism. It removes the pressure your child experiences to respond appropriately at the moment. It removes abstractions and ambiguities. It removes all the overwhelming intrusions and competing factors that exist in real life moments which the child cannot filter and process all at once.
It becomes his/her safe space to learn to build relationships where there are no wrong answers, hurt feelings or consequences. The child can potentially learn drives, motives, recognize social cues, read facial expressions, interpret what people may say and do, and how to respond in various situations he/she will face. I carefully say what therapy means to teach because a present truth is that some children may never internalize any of what I just said—but they may learn to navigate it.
The therapy helps them explore their own emotions and drives, identify and express them in effective ways which will create healthy boundaries to self-advocate. The bridge is built here; where the therapist can help the child learn to relate and differentiate his/her own truths and meet where the child is able by knowing and finding a healthy compromise to respond to the truths of others. That is a bridge many people never cross, so, that is no small feat.
It is a persistent process to help your child negotiate increasing social demands while simultaneously learning to regulate their experience of an overwhelming world. Speech therapy addresses their communication challenges, but still, the children have emotional stress and pain of not being able to communicate effectively.
While occupational therapy addresses sensory disorders, your child has likely already developed strong emotional reactions, anxieties, defense mechanisms, compulsions, and avoidance behaviors. While applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy means to address problematic behaviors—many of those behaviors may be rooted in the emotional aspects of autism.
Occupational therapy (OT) and emotional therapy (ET) combined will help discern which behaviors are sensory or emotionally triggered. Addressing behaviors does not address the sense your child is not thriving emotionally.
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Your child may even have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) due to living with autism without supports though, certainly, not due to your lack of fighting for them. It seems the doctors do not listen to parents until a child has reached this ambulatory state which, I find, is largely echoed as a truth in the global village.
Your child may not respond to ABA therapy at all. Many children require a gentler cognitive approach with a psychotherapist who can discern the connections your child is and is not making. The therapist can then help your child make connections the brain can manage according to his/her logic—individually— devoid of abstractions and ambiguities to begin with.
For the therapist to accomplish this, you will need to consistently update him/her on each issue your child has faced between visits. You will interpret any dysfunction or distress; all factors observed as they relate to your child and your interpretation of your child’s experience of “what happened.” For example, if your child has had a violent meltdown, you should state if it was sensory or emotionally triggered. You should explain what escalated it or de-escalated it.
Delayed onset meltdowns are a bewildering thing! The therapist can work in a controlled environment to explore the child’s experience. The therapist will use play-therapy, adapted to your child, which allows your child to visually examine what happened, learn alternate ways to respond and practice doing so, rehearsing, for the next time the situation arises. The child learns to build confidence in these controlled positive interactions slowly addressing the ambiguities that do exist.
Conflicts do arise if the exercises do not play out with precision in the crossover, but, this reinforces the need for persistent therapy to learn how to cope with these dilemmas the child does experience.
It is called “social scripting” for a reason; the sooner your child has the script he/she can hopefully learn what is expected even if he/she does not understand or submit to it. At least there will be aware of where things go wrong. Sometimes, the confusion alone results in ruminations, disengagement, alienation and/or defeat.
Perhaps your child will never emote “properly,” but your child might learn social/emotional mapping to the connections which have been bridged and understand “what happened.” The practice play helps eliminate the element of surprise, confusion, and misunderstanding.
Psychotherapy fills the gap between those who think autistic children will only learn by experience (sink or swim) and those who know the bad experiences keep pushing the proverbial pin in further which cause a child to internalize, resign, and ultimately, disconnect.
Autistics feel the same emotions though they experience the world differently, feel differently about it, and express it in unique ways. They need these connections bridged so they are not isolated in their own experience of the world and life but instead, are engaged and thriving. They need a way to make themselves known, be understood, encouraged and loved in a way they receive it and process it.
Some autistics do not even recognize hunger. At its bare bones, therapy will hopefully help a child learn to identify and express the emotions related to hunger, the emotional breakdown and downward spiral of events due to hunger alone—in a way he or she will seek food or eat it. That alone is the most basic challenge that must be overcome for thriving. Some autistics become paralyzed in pain; some laugh at the anger of others and cry in their own anger.
They feel all the same emotions, but their neurology is processing and responding differently. Hugs are a primal social need yet, some children on the spectrum need to work through this; the “who” to hug, “what” a hug means, “when” to hug, “where” to hug, “why” people hug, “how” to hug and if they do not want to—they do not have to—and ways to clearly express that. It is not an issue of the heart or mind; it is an issue of the brain’s wiring.
Even a child who has acquired emotional intelligence may still be overwhelmed by his/her emotions and others. Social scripting and emotional intelligence can be taught, and your child may learn how he/she is expected to respond, but in the moment your child may become so overwhelmed that none of what was learned can be comfortably executed.
It is painfully awkward and exhausting to have to search for the unoffending truth. Boundaries are the most crucial skill for your child to develop healthy relationships and maintain a sense of self. They are essential for protection and self-advocacy as they are especially susceptible to manipulation and harm.
Many parents express fear of what their vulnerable child may be experiencing in the care of other caregivers. They sense something is wrong or happening to their child. These concerns call for the need of a psychotherapist to explore. It is best if your child already has a bonded relationship with one; it takes a while to learn the particulars of your unique child.
The therapist needs to establish a functioning line of communication with your child—whatever that may look like with your child. This way, when safety or treatment concerns do arise, and they will, they can be discovered promptly rather than spending many months just building that bridge between therapist and child. At a minimum, build that one.
If your concerns are confirmed, then your child will need this therapy to cope, heal and be encouraged to continue to engage. If all other therapies are life-support, emotional therapy builds the bridge that connects them all and finds your child’s drive to want to engage.
This article was featured in Issue 89 – Solutions for Today and Tomorrow with ASD