Did you know that there could be a connection between social skills and emotional regulation? In the 2012 Futurity article, “Strategy helps autistic kids rein in emotions,” Professor Antonio Hardan discusses the connection between emotional regulation and social skills.
The research suggests that individuals with autism may struggle with socialization in part because of their tendency to suppress negative emotions (this suppression may occur because individuals with autism have difficulty identifying emotions and differentiating between varying emotional states).
The good news here is that if children on the autism spectrum can learn emotional regulation skills, they can minimize outbursts and facilitate healthy relationships too.
What is Emotional Regulation?
As we noted in a recent post, it is the skill of managing feelings so that they don’t reach overwhelming levels and interfere with learning and development.
Though your child may need to work with an ABA specialist to practice these skills, you can continue the learning process outside of a clinical environment. As a parent, you can model and teach vital skills and principles at home.
Mastering these skills doesn’t require a classroom or textbooks. Practice the following techniques anywhere, from a car seat to a restaurant booth. When individuals with autism learn to process their own emotions, they enjoy greater personal independence and social connections too.
1. Calming the body
The first essential skill involves calming the body during times of emotional overwhelm or sensory overload.
As a parent, you probably already know what your child’s fight-or-flight response looks like. When they tense up, you’re all too aware of their clenched fists, shallow breaths, or panicked facial expression.
However, what seems obvious to you may not be apparent to your child. If you can help them to identify the warning signs of their own meltdown behavior, you’ll increase their self-awareness. Increased self-awareness is the first step to self-regulating behavior.
In a calm moment, work with your child on identifying these physical distress signals. Social stories, images, or even musical cues can help in this effort.
For example, you and your child can look at a series of pictures of individual becoming increasingly agitated. Together, note the observable behaviors that indicate distress: pacing, hair-pulling, an increase in compulsive behaviors, and so on. Practice recognizing what a panic response looks like.
With those observations in mind, teach practical techniques for calming one’s physical body. Choose a coping strategy, as well as a common behavior to pair with it. If your child pulls their hair repeatedly when distressed, hair-pulling could serve as a cue to start a cycle of ten purposeful breaths.
Taking slow, deep breaths is a powerful way to trigger the body’s parasympathetic, calming response. This has benefits beyond the stressful moment, too.
As Gretchen Cuda notes in her 2010 NPR piece, “Just Breathe: Body Has a Built-In Stress Reliever,” “Deep breathing is not only relaxing, it’s been scientifically proven to affect the heart, the brain, digestion, the immune system — and maybe even the expression of genes.”
Thus, teaching your child to take a pause and breathe deeply in stressful moments can calm a fight or flight reaction and benefit their overall health.
Other helpful physiological practices include progressive muscle relaxation exercises to help with tension or insomnia. Meditations or simple mantras can help to mitigate stressful situations too.
2. Detecting sensory overwhelm patterns and planning a response
Teaching your child breathing exercises allows them to self-soothe, but it’s even more helpful to prevent sensory overwhelm in the first place.
If you’re uncertain about whether sensory processing issues might be contributing to challenging behavior, keep a log of your child’s meltdowns with an Antecedent-Behavior-Consequence (ABC) Data Sheet.
Once you have the data on hand, you can work in partnership with your child’s teacher or ABA clinician to detect possible sensory issues (Download a free ABC sheet template here).
When you’ve detected likely areas of sensory processing difficulty, research and brainstorm possible solutions.
Does your child flinch at loud noises or crowds? If so, purchase a durable pair of noise-canceling headphones or earplugs. Likewise, if your child is overwhelmed by bright lights, keep sunglasses or specialized lenses close at hand.
It’s also a good idea to keep multiple spare pairs of such items in easily-accessible areas of your child’s backpack, your purse, or the family car. Many families have had the unpleasant experience of losing or breaking a pair of glasses just when they needed them most!
Of course, you won’t be able to predict or control every bright light, loud noise, or sudden shift in your child’s environment which is why its important to practice using these items as well as teaching your child how to manage their emotions in the face of a difficult sensory experiences. In partnership with your child’s ABA specialist, you can use social stories and visual schedules to familiarize your child with challenging sensory situations, such as school fire drills.
3. Recognizing one’s own emotional states and the emotional states of others
The ability to recognize emotional states is a key to self-regulation. After all, if a child can’t accurately identify their own emotions, they’ll have tremendous difficulty communicating their feelings to others.
As such, it’s important for your child to learn to describe his or her own emotional states. While it’s possible to identify dozens of discrete emotions, the four broadest categories for human emotions are mad, sad, glad, and scared. Focus your efforts on teaching your child about these four fundamental emotions.
In doing so, keep in mind your child’s way of thinking. If your son is a visual learner, you might use drawings or photographs of expressive faces. If your daughter thinks in patterns, you might also use a musical phrase to convey emotion (for more on the differences in processing patterns, check out “Children with autism aren’t necessarily visual learners.”).
You can also support your child by using their specific interests and talents as a gateway to the discussion. For example, you might take a vague, open-ended question such as, “What’s it like to feel sad?” and make it more accessible by asking, “What color is sadness?” or, “What character in Disney’s The Little Mermaid is angry?”
Your child may not be able to describe the feeling of sadness within their own body, but they may well be able to share that sadness is blue, and that anger looks like Ursula the Sea Witch in a rage.
When you educate your child on what the major emotional states look and feel like, you empower them to take a significant step forward on the road to emotional regulation and healthy socialization.