Life offers you a relentless array of stimuli, situations and experiences. In order to maintain your sanity throughout what seems too many as bustling chaos, you need to regulate your reactions and emotions to these varying and sometimes distressing experiences. Inability to do so may cause an individual to experience emotions such as anxiety, depression, fear or anger.
Children with autism tend to find it harder to regulate their emotions and reactions in the face of different experiences, owing to certain distinctive physiological and psychological factors.
Helene Goldnadel explains here what emotional regulation is, the factors that make it difficult for children with autism to regulate their emotions and the possible interventions that can help children with autism regulate their emotions better.
What is emotional regulation and why is it so important?
Emotional regulation is the ability to respond to the ongoing demands of one’s experiences in a way that is socially feasible and allows you enough flexibility to respond appropriately to a situation.
It is an indispensable life skill to be able to regulate our emotions as it helps us evaluate a situation objectively and respond appropriately, without getting overwhelmed by emotions.
When individuals are well-regulated emotionally, they are most available for learning and engaging. In learning environments such as schools, it is imperative for a child to be emotionally regulated in order to be able to engage in what’s being taught and learn effectively.
How is emotional regulation achieved?
Emotional regulation can be achieved in the following two ways:
Self-regulation is emotional regulation that is achieved independently by individuals. Self-regulation strategies can vary among individuals. Some people may start pacing in an emotionally taxing situation while others could resort to simply taking a few deep breaths.
On the other hand, repetitive sensory motor stimulation such as finger flicking, flapping and delayed echolalia are measures commonly resorted to by autistic children in emotionally distressing situations. These measures are regarded as unconventional and could cause disruptions in a classroom, even though they may help the individual child to calm down.
Mutual regulatory abilities allow a person to achieve a more regulated emotional state either through the presence or actions of other people or by requesting assistance and support from others.
For example, for a child who’s had a stressful day at school, returning home to their mother’s loving disposition could help calm them down. Alternatively, the child may discuss the happenings of the day with their parents to seek their support and guidance.
Risk factors that make autistic children prone to emotional dysregulation
Emotional dysregulation refers to a set of emotions and behavior exhibited by a person who is unable to regulate their emotions effectively. It may be characterized by a mild state of discomfort or increasingly overwhelming negative emotions such as anxiety, anger and associated defensive/aggressive behavior.
Autistic children may encounter periods of emotional dysregulation owing to the following factors:
Children with autism often grapple with sensory challenges. They may be hypersensitive or hyposensitive (undersensitive) to sensory stimuli. A noisy room could make it difficult for a child with autism to focus on their task.
Arousal bias is another cause that is common to people with or without autism. Some people are predisposed to be bias for high arousal states, perpetually craving activity, while others are more passive in nature and prefer a low arousal state.
Strategies to assist a child in regulating their emotions
Preventive strategies, are aimed towards the prevention of a child experiencing a state of emotional dysregulation. These can involve:
- Offering opportunities for physical movement and exercise to help curb the sensory discomfort or imbalance possibly experienced by the child
- Adjusting or reducing sensory input when it seems to perturb the child
- Communicating in a way that’s literal and simple
- Extensive use of visual supports for academic teaching
Reactive strategies involve measures you can take once you notice that a child is finding it hard to deal with the demands of an experience and seems to be getting emotionally distressed. These strategies may involve:
- Reducing the duration of an activity
- Simplifying an activity
- Allowing the child access to a quiet place to help calm them down
Strategies to help teach emotional regulation
Another way to help children learn to manage their emotions and reactions is to equip them with the tools to do so.
Teaching them to adopt soothing sensory-motor stimulation strategies during stressful times such as focusing on a calming activity (e.g., listening to music or gentle swinging) can help them acquire effective tools to help regulate their emotions.
Additionally, teaching children how to express their emotions through nonverbal gestures and verbal language can equip children with the know-how to deal with varying situations.
Specialized schools that cater to children on the autism spectrum can help accommodate their special needs and challenges in a way that makes them feel focused and emotionally balanced.
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