When you consider the holiday season, what words come to mind? Perhaps you might think of “family”, “faith”, or even “travel.” Maybe the symbols of your celebrations might arise: menorahs, candles, Christmas trees, and Kwanzaa crops.

Or maybe you’ll think of “endings”. After all, the winter holidays mark the end of a calendar year, the waning of warmth and daylight hours.   That said, the holidays can be a time of new beginnings and new learning, too … especially when it comes to emotional self-management.

What is emotional regulation, and why is it important? As we wrote in our blog post, How to equip your child with emotional regulation skills:

“Emotional regulation is the ability to manage one’s own feelings. It indicates self-control and self-command, and it’s a vital component of personal growth.”

With that in mind, let’s look at a few of the valuable lessons that the holidays have to teach us about autism and emotional regulation.

The holidays teach us that it’s essential to practice self-management skills before diving into stressful situations.

Yes, the holiday season is a time of joy and celebration, but it’s also a time of extra activities, extra stress, and extra time with family members.

Let’s tell it like it is: Spending tons of time with family can be tough. Though we love our parents and siblings and spouses and children, they can also push our buttons like no one else.

As such, you’ll want to set aside a little time each day to review these key skills with your child. Consider them your self-management toolkit:

  • Identifying your own emotional state; Expressing your emotions in a healthy manner (check out our free sample FirstPath Autism video, Labeling and Identifying Emotions, to see what this process looks like in action)
  • Deep breathing and slowing your pulse to calm the physical body (and perhaps including a short yoga and meditation practice in the morning to set the tone for the day)
  • Choosing a self-care strategy that works for you (this may include time alone, exercise, or calming pressure)
  • Using adaptive equipment to calm the body or mitigate sensory overload (perhaps using noise-canceling headphones, earplugs, eyeglasses, and so forth)

The holidays teach us that emotional regulation skills are like muscles: they strengthen with use, but they have their limits as well.

Picture this: You and your family are approaching your holiday destination at the end of a long day of air travel. Your child did a great job staying calm on the plane, but he’s become increasingly agitated in the last hour in the rental car.

He’s been asking you the same questions repeatedly, and showing other telltale signs of stress and strain. As you approach your relative’s house, a choice arises: Will you find a quiet place to pull over and practice some calming techniques with your child, or will you keep driving?

There’s no one right answer, and it’s impossible to predict all the possible outcomes of every choice you make. But when such situations arise, consider carving out extra time to support your child’s emotional self-management.

For example, if you chose to pull the car over and do breathing exercises and some emotional processing, you might have given your child the space he needed to have a relatively calm rest of the evening.

You might even head off managing a meltdown later on … and then again, you might not. Either way, it’s wise to build in pauses, periods of deliberate rest in the midst of high-pressure times.

Most of all, be kind to yourself and your child when one (or both!) of you hit rough patches during family visits. Know that it’s tough for many people to be true to themselves around their family.

As author and blogger Glennon Doyle Melton of Momastery writes:

“When it comes to authenticity: Family is not the starting place; family is the FINAL FRONTIER. Practicing authenticity with family is like practicing cat grooming in a lion’s den. If you’d like to practice being real and vulnerable and YOURSELF – don’t start with your family, start with your mailman.”

The holidays teach us that learning emotional self-management skills is an ongoing process. 

As a parent and a responsible adult, you probably already have a black belt in emotional regulation. Yet even so, you probably still feel your emotions getting out of control during high-pressure times. You’re only human, after all.

Those trying times are actually helpful in that they remind you of what it’s like to struggle with emotional self-management. They give you empathy for your child, who is not as far along in the development process as you are!

Such instances also give you the opportunity to remember how you gained such strong skills in the first place: through many years of practice.

So, when you’re feeling frustrated with your child’s outbursts, remember that the best thing you can do is provide him or her with structured opportunities to learn emotional regulation skills.  

A consistent ABA therapy program is a fantastic way to facilitate this lifelong emotional learning. ABA is one of the few evidence-based, proven treatments for autism, and it’s recommended by the US Surgeon General, as well as myriad autism research foundations and advocacy groups.

As we wrote in our blog post Emotional regulation skills your child needs for holiday parties:

“ABA exercises … empower individuals with autism to engage with the concept of emotion on multiple levels. [For example], the picture cards engage visual memory, the verbalizations encourage expression, and the physical practice of assuming different expressions helps to concretize the concept.”

If you cannot travel to an ABA provider in your town or city, know that you can always access FirstPath’s full library of ABA video lessons.

Ah, the holidays. The family visits, the Santa songs on the radio … and the parties. Perhaps you’re looking forward to exchanging presents and enjoying the general good cheer, but the parties? Not so much.

As an autism parent, you’re probably too busy trying to make sure that your child doesn’t melt down to really enjoy the festivities.

Here’s the good news: you don’t need to dread holiday gatherings with your child. Instead, you can take practical steps to prepare.

By working with your child to build emotional regulation skills, you can give yourself and your family a much better chance of enjoying the merry-making.

Why work on emotional regulation skills this season? Well, because they are a cornerstone of social interaction and self-management as well.

As we wrote in our blog post, How to equip your child with emotional regulation skills, “Emotional regulation is the ability to manage one’s own feelings. It indicates self-control and self-command, and it’s a vital component of personal growth.”

So if you plan on attending parties with your child this season, you’d be wise to work on the following skill sets.

The ability to identify emotional states in oneself and others 

Correctly identifying emotional states is a foundational social skill, and it’s more difficult for individuals with autism than it is for typically-developing children.

As world-renowned autism researcher and professor Simon Baron-Cohen noted in his article, Can emotion recognition be taught to children with autism spectrum conditions:

“Children with autism spectrum conditions … have major difficulties in recognizing and responding to emotional and mental states in others’ facial expressions. Such difficulties in empathy underlie their social-communication difficulties that form a core of the diagnosis.”

Since children with autism have significant gaps in the area of emotional recognition, it’s crucial to use ABA strategies to practice these skills early and often.

Watch our free FirstPath video lesson, Labeling and Identifying Emotionsto see this learning in action. First, the clinician uses picture cards to help a child discern between emotions. The therapist has the student view two pictures and then identify a given emotional state.

After that, the clinician makes the exercise more challenging by displaying a picture card and asking the learner to voice the correct emotional state. Finally, the student is asked to demonstrate emotional states himself. (His natural enthusiasm lends itself to a great ‘excited’ face, complete with laughter and beaming.)


ABA exercises like these empower individuals with autism to engage with the concept of emotion on multiple levels. The picture cards engage visual memory, the verbalizations encourage expression, and the physical practice of assuming different expressions helps to concretize the concept.

Not sure how to interest your child in building this skill? Start by connecting the lessons to favorite characters from beloved books, movies, or TV shows. You can buy or create picture cards featuring familiar faces, and this may help motivate your child to learn.

As we noted in our blog post, 7 facts about emotional regulation:

“It helps to tie [emotional regulation skill-building] to your child’s current interests. For example, if your child loves the Disney movie Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, use Happy and Grumpy as part of the lesson.”

Use appropriate emotional expressions; verbally respond to questions

Once your child can identify his or her own emotions, the next step is to express them where needed, and voice appropriate responses to questions (as always, children who don’t use verbal language can point to picture cards or use adaptive devices)  .

That said, it’s important to ensure that your child has mastered the verbal interaction prerequisites to this skill set.

Make certain that your child can answer more concrete questions before moving on to abstract ones. Start with visually present information; for example, you can ask, “What is that?” (A blanket) and “Whose is it?” (It’s mine.)

Once you’ve established competence with concrete, visually-based questions, you can move to questions about internal feeling states.

To begin, you can offer multiple-choice queries, such as “Are you feeling sad or mad now?” or, ”Do you feel scared or happy today?” Gradually, you can progress to open-ended questions like “How are you feeling?”

FirstPath subscribers can access our video lesson and data sheets on this topic, Answering WH questions.  

Employ effective self-management strategies

Before going to a party, talk with your child about exactly what to do if he feels mad, sad, glad, or scared. Make a list of reasonable strategies.

For example, here are a few potentially healthy options when strong emotions arise during holiday gatherings (Of course, these will vary based on your child’s personality and sensory profile).

  • If you’re feeling mad – Tell Mom or Dad how you feel. Use a squeeze ball, weighted vest, or other calming device. Ask to go for a walk outside to get space to cool down.
  • If you’re feeling sad – Take a break and read a favorite book. Ask someone to play a favorite game with you. Ask for a hug.
  • If you’re feeling glad – Say it out loud or write it down. Give a hug to someone else. Dance to a favorite song.
  • If you’re feeling scared -Tell Mom and Dad. Ask for help. Take 10 deep breaths. Pick up a favorite toy or reassuring object.

Lastly, remember that with a little practice, holiday parties can go much more smoothly for your family.

Establishing stronger emotional self-management skills means that you’ll have both a better time and a reason to celebrate.

Have you ever struggled through a tough day at work, dealing with crisis after crisis, keeping a lid on your anger, sadness, and fear … only to ‘lose it’ by yelling and sobbing uncontrollably once you get into your car?

If so, then you’re not alone. You’re only human, so you know how it feels to reach the limit of your capacity for emotional self-management.

Emotional regulation is the ability to manage one’s own feelings. It indicates self-control and self-command, and it’s a vital component of personal growth.

As such, these self-control skills affect all areas of life, from education to social interactions. If your child cannot manage his own emotions, he’ll have a tough time learning at school, and experience difficulty making and keeping friends.

So how can you equip your child with these essential skills? If you’re wondering what to do next to facilitate your child’s development, look no further.

We understand that you’ve got a full plate and a busy schedule, so here’s a crash-course in supporting your child’s emotional development.

1. Learn to recognize emotional states  

First, practice emotions labeling with your child, because the ability to identify one’s own emotional state is a basic component of self-management.

As we noted in our blog post, 3 emotional regulation skills that you can practice anywhere, “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.”

Given the importance of this practice, you’ll want to weave it into the fabric of your days.

For example, you might want to start a ritual of taking pause during car rides or meals to ask your child to name their emotional state.  

An ABA therapist can help in this effort. The clinician in the FirstPath Autism video lesson “Emotions Labeling” on our Home pagedemonstrates multiple techniques for learning emotional states.

At first, the child picks out a card representing a given emotion from between two possible cards. As the lesson goes on, the level of difficulty increases; he’s asked to name the emotion on each card independently.

In one such dialogue, the therapist shows a photograph of a yawning woman and asks, “How does she feel?” The child responds with the correct answer and a relevant suggestion too: “Tired … she needs to take a nap in her bed!”

Finally, the therapist prompts the child to display varying emotional states on his own face. (“Show me … happy!”) The child makes the appropriate facial expression, thus connecting a descriptive term to a physical sensation.

2. Prevent panic and promote stillness

What else can you do to teach your child emotional self-management? You can help to prevent fight-or-flight responses, and coach your child to calm his or her own body when panic does arise.

Sometimes, you can stop a sensory-overload experience before it starts simply by carrying noise-canceling headphones and sunglasses everywhere you go.

Of course, it isn’t always that simple. Try as you might, you can’t always predict how your child will react in a given situation.

As a case in point, children with sensory processing disorder experience varying levels of tolerance to stimuli. One day the usual level of classroom noise isn’t a problem, and the next day, it is.

Given this, it’s important to empower your child to de-escalate their own physical response to stress. Deep breathing and counting slowly to ten work for many people, as do yoga stretches and breathing exercises.

In fact, early research indicates that a regular yoga practice can be extremely beneficial for individuals with autism.

As Kristie Patten Koenig says in the 2012 NPR article, Classroom Yoga Helps Improve Behavior of Kids with Autism,

“‘We know that anxiety fuels a lot of the negative [classroom] behavior, so the yoga program gives them a strategy to cope with it.’”

A simple 17-minute routine of breathing, poses, and muscle tensing and relaxation gave students on the spectrum an opportunity to self-manage their bodies and emotions at the start of the school day, and their behavior benefitted from it.

In addition to yoga techniques, you can also use adaptive equipment to provide calming pressure if desired by your child. Our blog post What we can learn about autism and emotional regulation from Temple Grandinoffers a few suggestions:

“Individuals with autism use hug machines, weighted blankets, rugs, and other customized furniture to provide safe, self-soothing pressure …. Experiment and see what kind of calming techniques work for your loved one.”

3. Offer gradated opportunities for greater independence

One often-overlooked way to support your child’s emotional regulation skills is for you to allow them to separate from you in an age-appropriate fashion.

Many times, children with autism feel frustrated because their desire for self-determination conflicts with their need for support and when parents don’t allow their children opportunities to develop independent living skills, that frustration turns into anger and learned helplessness.

As such, it’s up to you to identify (and allow!) some calculated risks for your child. Ask your child what they’d like to learn how to do “without Mom or Dad’s help”.

As you’re moving through your daily routine, look for evidence that your child wants to do certain tasks independently.

Does your child tend to push your hands away when you go to tie his shoes? That may be an indication that he wants to learn how to tie them himself. Does your daughter resist when you attempt to brush her hair? She might prefer to do it without help.

Once you have your list, break down each task into steps. What would it take for your child to get from dependence to independence?

For example, say your child wants to learn how to brush her own teeth. At first, you’ll need to practice hand-over-hand toothbrushing, guiding the application of toothpaste, the back and forth and up and down motions, and so forth.

Once you see that she’s mastered these discrete skills, you can step back and can encourage independent toothbrushing. You’ll work in a quick ‘quality check’ at first, but you can phase this out once you’re satisfied that your child has mastered the skill.

4. Get support for yourself too!

Finally, know that an ABA clinician can be an invaluable asset in this area. ABA therapists are trained to break down large, complex tasks into smaller, more manageable pieces, as shown in our videos!

Did you know that meditation changes the structure of the brain in lasting, measurable ways? Simply sitting quietly and observing your own thoughts and emotions actually improves your health, because it increases emotional self-regulation.

Emotional regulation is the ability to sustain a kind of internal steadiness. It gives you the power to observe and analyze your emotions, rather than simply letting them toss you to and fro.

One essential benefit of our FirstPath Autism ABA videos is that they teach emotional management techniques. Why? Because the ability to regulate one’s own emotions is crucial to social, relational, and intellectual growth.

What else do you need to know about emotional self-management and autism? Read on to find out.

Fact #1: Emotional regulation is a teachable skill.

As we noted in our blog post, What We Can Learn About Autism and Emotional Regulation from Temple Grandin,

“[It] 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.”

So, if your child struggles with this, don’t assume that he lacks the capacity to master his emotions or that you’ve somehow failed as a parent. Instead, enlist the support of trained ABA clinicians, teachers, and other professionals, who can jump-start your child’s learning process.

Fact #2: Autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder that impacts emotional regulation. 

Individuals on the spectrum often need extra support with regards to emotions. As Andrea Samson and her team point out,

“Problematic emotional responses, such as tantrums and anger outbursts, are surprisingly common in individuals with autism spectrum disorder ….”

The piece goes on to say that,

“Individuals with ASD … derive benefits when they are capable of generating a cognitive reappraisal strategy.”

Cognitive reappraisal involves looking ahead to the future and anticipating ‘triggering’ events, and then reframing them so as to reduce emotional impact.

For example, if your child is terrified of fire drills, you might mitigate her fear by helping him to understand that fire drills are a safety measure. In this effort, you could use social stories or role-playing to communicate.

Fact #3: There’s a strong connection between the ability to regulate emotions and social skills.

As one Centre for Autism Middletown presentation says, social communication is a challenge for many children with autism because they have “difficulty recognizing how emotions feel and expressing internal states”, as well as a tendency to “make semantic errors in labeling [their] own emotions”.

Plus, some techniques that children with autism use to regulate their emotions and sensory processes (such as hand-flapping and other stimming behaviors) can impact their social lives.

Fact #4: Labeling emotional states is a key piece of the self-management puzzle.

It’s unrealistic to expect your child to communicate his emotions if he doesn’t how to label them in the first place. With the help of an ABA clinician, you might use picture cards or an emotions chart to teach your child to identify various emotional states.

It helps to tie these lessons to your child’s current interests. For example, if your child loves the Disney movie Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, use Happy and Grumpy as part of the lesson.

Even if you’re on the go and pressed for time, you can still practice labeling emotions with your child. Check out our blog post 3 Emotional Regulation Skills That You Can Practice Anywhere for specific tips.

Fact #5: Emotional management skills (or lack thereof) impact relationships. 

Imagine this: One day, your young daughter doesn’t want to wear her new snow boots. You insist, since sidewalks are icy and you’re concerned for her safety.

However, your daughter depends on being able to wear the same sneakers every day. The thought of not wearing them triggers feelings of instability and anger for her.

However, she doesn’t have the skills she needs to explain why she’s upset and discuss the issue with you. She struggles to recognize her own feelings, much less articulate them calmly.

As a result, she acts rashly, hurling her snow boots at you. After that, the focus of your conversation shifts to her inappropriate coping behavior. Her intended message (“I just want to feel safe and wear my sneakers!”) gets lost in translation.

ABA teaches both parents and children to look for the motivation behind behaviors. It emphasizes the idea that all behavior is a means of communication. Through ABA, you and your child can learn skills that will help you navigate (and prevent!) such stressful moments.

Fact #6: Learning to calm one’s physical body is a vital aspect of regulating emotions.

As noted above, heightened reactivity is common in individuals with autism. As a result, they’re more likely to experience a fight-or-flight reaction to stressful events. When fear arises, a physical response follows, complete with racing heart, sweating palms, shallow breaths.

But your child can learn to recognize the signs of panic and respond with de-escalation strategies. For example, children with autism who practice deep breathing as a relaxation technique can calm themselves effectively.

And when children learn to self-regulate and quiet their own bodies, it has a positive effect on their confidence.

Fact #7: Greater emotional self-control leads to greater personal independence.

Want your child to increase his or her independence? Then be sure to practice emotional management skills.

When a child can engage in cognitive reappraisal and self-govern, there’s less need for parental intervention. Greater personal empowerment and independence is the result.


If you’re a FirstPath member and you’re interested in working on emotional regulation skills, try these two helpful lessons with your child:

Video: Emotions Labeling

This lesson teaches students how to identify and recognize emotions in self, others, and pictures.

Video: Situation-based emotions

The focus of this lesson is to teach students how to identify and recognize how someone typically feels in common situations.

Did you know that using schedules can alleviate agitation and promote self-determination for children with autism? It’s true. Parents of children with autism agree that using visuals to explain a child’s schedule makes a big difference in both their children’s home life and educational experiences.

As Catherine Davies notes in her Indiana Resource Center for Autism article, “ … A parent was asked to share the most helpful thing that she had tried with her son (a 15 year old with a diagnosis of high functioning autism). She replied that a visual schedule has been the key to increasing his independence and managing his anxiety.”

Coupled with social stories, visual schedules can help children with autism to thrive in a classroom environment. Social stories feature brief overviews of common social situations, along with tips on how to communicate, respond to cues, and engage in safe behaviors. Visual schedules employ pictures and text to outline a series of planned events.

These tools help students with autism by presenting necessary information in a clear, understandable way. They render abstract concepts concrete, allowing students to focus more easily. They also break down complex tasks into single steps, thereby reducing feelings of overwhelm and anxiety.

Plus, they are useful for an entire class, and teachers use them in both mainstream classrooms and special education settings. In this way, these tools promote an atmosphere of inclusion. Though they’re particularly effective for individuals on the autism spectrum, most students can benefit from them.

As we wrote in our recent post, visual tools “play to the strengths of students with autism, whose cognitive processes often differ from those of neurotypical students. They facilitate greater learning and independence for students on the spectrum because they present information in an accessible format.”

At FirstPath Autism, we’re committed to helping students learn and grow through ABA, but we also realize that what happens outside of an ABA session matters tremendously too.

As such, we’ve put together this list of tools so that you and your family can practice on your own.

In our years of experience as ABA clinicians, we’ve seen that the most effective interventions are simple, direct, and user-friendly. All the tools listed below are available in free as well as paid versions, so you can choose the best option for your child and your budget.

Tool #1: The Head Start Center for Inclusion’s Free Tool Kit 

The University of Washington’s Head Start Center for Inclusion website features a wide array of printable templates designed for teachers and students with autism. The site is a treasure trove of materials designed by professors of early childhood education and special education.

The Head Start Center’s mission is to promote inclusion or “the full and active participation of young children with disabilities in everyday settings,” and their resources empower educators and parents to do just that.

Click here to view and download The Head Start Center for Inclusion’s collection of free stories, and click here to peruse and download their free visual teaching tools such as schedule templates, classroom expectations, emotions charts, and more.

Tool #2: The Autism Speaks Visual Supports Free Tool Kit 

This extensive directory includes links to free online services that allow you to create your own social stories and visual schedules. Most resources are custom-designed for autism families.

For example, you might visit Autiplan and make a free printable or electronic visual schedule, or hop on over to Do2Learn’s Social Skills Toolbox for visual support templates such as behavioral thermometers, circle organizers, decision-making guides, and more.

You can also download Autism Speaks’ free four-page guide for an overview of first-then boards, visually-set parameters, and what to do in case challenging behaviors arise while using visual supports.

Click here to visit Autism Speaks’ website and explore the Visual Supports Tool Kit and resource list.

Tool #3: The TouchAutism Social Stories Creator and Library  

If you’d prefer to use an app, TouchAutism offers one via iTunes. With this tool, you can customize your stories and schedules with your own photos and voice recordings too.

At present, the free version of the app allows you to save two free stories; if you like the interface, you can upgrade to the pro version (predesigned stories are also available for purchase).

If you decide to upgrade, you’ll be able to print, upload, and email your customized stories, making it easier to share them with the rest of your child’s school support team.

Click here to visit the TouchAutism site and download the free Social Stories Creator and Library.

Do you want to facilitate your child’s education and social development? Then pick one of the resources listed above and download a free visual support today.

While you’re at it, take a moment to comment below and share your favorite tool with us! That way, more autism families can find and access these free tools and help their children succeed too!

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 postit 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.

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.

Like this post? Share it!