Did you know that individuals with autism have measurably divergent brain size and neurological responses? From enlarged temporal lobes to section-specific hyperactivity, those on the spectrum have minds that work just a little bit differently. These brain-based differences help to explain why people on the spectrum have unique abilities, and why they struggle with emotional regulation.

Emotional regulation is the skill of managing feelings so that they don’t reach overwhelming levels and interfere with learning and development. Many people on the spectrum need support as they struggle to manage their emotions and mitigate their anxiety. This challenge is compounded by the fact that individuals with autism also deal with sensory processing issues.

But what does that mean, exactly?

Imagine trying to control your emotional response while dealing with overloaded senses. Are you having trouble envisioning it? If so, watch this video simulation. It provides a portal into the sensory overload experience.

The presence of sensory issues makes it all the more essential that children learn emotional coping tactics. Without these vital skills, children may engage in meltdowns, tantrum behavior, self-injury, and other compulsive, problematic behaviors.

With this in mind, we turn to the wise example of Dr. Temple Grandin, a self-advocate, world-renowned activist, author, professor, and speaker on the spectrum.


Thanks to her books and talks, millions of people have a clearer understanding of how the world looks and feels to individuals with autism. August 29, 2015 marks Temple Grandin’s 68th birthday. What better time to celebrate her contributions and learn from her example?   In this post, we’ll look at three levels of emotional regulation and processing: the physical, the emotional, and the logical.  

Addressing the physical: When fear arises, calm the body.

In speaking of her emotional landscape, Grandin has said“My primary emotion is and has always been fear.” As a young woman on the autism spectrum during a time when autism awareness was minimal, Grandin developed effective techniques to calm herself when panic arose.

In fact, her work with livestock inspired her development of a hug machine for individuals with autism. Grandin saw how cattle calmed down when they stepped into a ranch’s squeeze chute, and she took the pressure principle and applied it in her own body.

As Grandin notes“Pressure is calming to the nervous system,” and stepping into a hug machine helps her to mitigate her fear response. Nowadays, individuals with autism use hug machines, weighted blankets, rugs, and other customized furniture to provide safe, self-soothing pressure.

Every person is different, so you may need to experiment and see what kind of calming techniques work for your loved one. Deep breathing, counting, and yoga exercises may lessen feelings of fear and over-stimulation. Whichever technique you use, know that learning to calm the body is a major step toward emotional regulation.

Addressing the emotional: Learn to recognize and interpret emotional states and cues.

Once an individual is physically calm, we can move on to the next level: interpreting their emotions. A state of physical panic does not make for accurate, nuanced emotional interpretation.

Learning to recognize emotional states is a skill that takes practice for anyone, and children with autism need more support in this area than their neurotypical peers. ABA clinicians can help individuals with autism to practice recognizing and naming their own emotional states.

By using tools such as emotions charts, photograph prompts, and facial expression drawings, ABA specialists familiarize children on the spectrum with various emotional states, giving them the tools they need to name and express their feelings.

When individuals with autism learn to identify and communicate their own emotional states, they empower their parents and care providers to partner with them and co-create more positive environments. After all, if a support team member doesn’t know what an individual is feeling, they’re limited in their ability to prevent problem behaviors.  As Temple Grandin writes in her book Animals Make Us Human,

“My theory is that the environment animals live in should activate their positive emotions as much as possible, and not activate their negative emotions any more than necessary. If we get the animal’s emotions right, we will have fewer problem behaviors.”  

Addressing the logical: When it comes to social skills, practice, practice, practice.

When an individual can calm their body and recognize emotional states and signals, they’re ready to think about social interactions on a logical level. ABA provides an effective system for such training, as it addresses theory of mind and the thinking behind social interaction. Through ABA, individuals learn how to respond in common social situations, such as answering the phone or meeting someone for the first time.

Moreover, ABA emphasizes repetition and consistent practice, both of which are key to success in social skills learning. As Temple herself observed,

“Social thinking skills must be directly taught to children and adults with ASD. Doing so opens doors of social understanding in all areas of life.”  

These skills are an important part of what FirstPath Autism offers families through our ABA video series. Teaching children on the spectrum to manage their emotions is one of the most important aims of ABA, and our videos reflect that.

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