Mindfulness is one way that autistic children may learn to manage emotions

Dr. Kelly Battle Beck

Many children on the autism spectrum have trouble managing their emotions. Even though this challenge is not unique to autism— autistic children do have 4-7x higher risk for difficulty managing emotions (Conner et al., 2020). This is called “emotion dysregulation”.

Emotional dysregulation may be linked to higher rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide risk in people on the autism spectrum.

There are many reasons why autistic people may have emotion dysregulation more than others. It can be worsened by difficulty noticing emotions, more social stressors, and biological processes in the brain.

It can sometimes look like going from “0 to 100 instantly”, difficulty calming, and low mood. Some children may feel out of control and do things they wouldn’t usually do—like yell, hit, or injure themselves when dysregulated. 

 

Dr. Kelly Battle Beck is an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh. She develops programs to help autistic youth and adults better manage their emotions. “Giving autistic people tools that help them manage their feelings can lead to better emotional wellbeing,” Dr. Beck explains. “Our goal to help autistic children learn to manage their emotions as independently as possible —hopefully improving their quality of life.”

What can help?

Mindfulness is one option for therapists to teach autistic people and their family members to recognize their emotions and use strategies to calm themselves. The first step is for children to learn how strong their emotions are (1-10). It is not as important to be able to talk about their feelings during a meltdown. Noticing emotions as they get stronger is the first step.

Caregivers can start working on this with their children now. Parents or caregivers can model noticing emotions around their children—even in moments of calm. Dr. Beck explains, “The next time you’re angry or frustrated about something, you may want to say to your autistic child in a simple, but clear way, ‘My emotions are strong (7 out of 10). I’m going to sit here, close my eyes and breathe.’ Then do those things while your child is watching.”

After the child starts to learn this, caregivers can try the same thing when the child is mildly upset and work up to trying new strategies in a meltdown.

During a meltdown Dr. Beck suggests that parents/caregivers:

  • Acknowledge their feelings: “I see you’re having strong/big feelings. All emotions are OK”
  • Reduce sensory input. Turn off music, the TV, and lights.
  • Create a safe space where the child can’t hurt himself or someone else.
  • Don’t ask questions about what the child is feeling.
  • Don’t talk about the consequences of the meltdown until hours later or the next day.
  • Don’t make eye contact.
  • Use “let’s” language. For example, “Let’s breathe together.”

Dr. Beck urges parents to trust what they know about their child, too. “You are the parent. You know what may work best for your child. For example, maybe instead of breathing as your calming strategy, your child will respond better to a warm shower.”

Dr. Beck encourages parents/caregivers to keep the statements short and simple and not to give up if the method doesn’t work right away. Therapists can help families with these skills too.

“The end goal is to help your child recognize their emotions and calm themself,” Dr. Beck says. “The hope is that over time, you and your child can regulate together.”

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