Has your child with Asperger’s (AS) or High-Functioning Autism (HFA) ever been labeled as "highly emotional" or “melodramatic” by others? Does he enjoy quiet play more than big and noisy groups? Does he ask lots of questions? Is he incredibly perceptive, noticing most of the minor details of life? Does your youngster want all the tags pulled out from his shirts? If you answered yes to any of the above, you may be raising an emotionally hypersensitive youngster – but that’s not a bad thing!
Emotionally hypersensitive kids may not have all the traits listed below – and they may have the traits to differing degrees – but they all require special parenting techniques to enable them to function effectively:
- Above average ability in one or more areas, even if not evident in schoolwork
- Bedwetting beyond typical age
- Can be easily overwhelmed
- Cries easily
- Detailed oriented
- Doesn’t learn “social rules” as fast as other kids
- Doesn’t like change
- Doesn’t like conflict
- Doesn’t like to be in crowds
- Doesn’t like to be over-stimulated
- Either excels at math or has math dyscalculia
- Feels responsible for others’ emotions
- Feels the emotions of others as if these emotions were their own
- Good memory, may have photographic memory
- Has a greater need to resolve emotional conflicts because of over-sensitivity towards others’ emotions
- Has a strong sense of justice and unfairness
- Loses sense of time
- May be exceptionally intelligent
- May be perceived as a slow learner only because he needs to understand the breadth and depth of something first
- May experience audio-motor incoordination
- May have learning disabilities
- May have a sense of global injustice, but not have empathy for an individual
- May leave a room full of family members and withdraw to their room to be alone for a while
- Needs more structure and instructions than is typically required for kids to learn
- Often so direct that they can be viewed as being rude
- Participates in group activities only after getting to know the other kids, the environment, and the dynamics
- Precocious (e.g., uses words, phrasing and complete sentences beyond age level; assumes an authority of an adult; asks thought provoking questions; is introspective, etc.)
- Prefers to be alone or with only one peer
- Quiet, shy, introverted, withdrawn
- Reacts quickly to environmental toxins (e.g., cleaning products) and may have multiple chemical sensitivities
- Refuses to go near a particular person, room or building
- Self-absorbed and self-focused
- Sensitive to noise, taste of certain foods, smells, certain colors or color combinations, touch, etc.
- Skin sensitivity (e.g., clothes may itch, labels in clothes are uncomfortable, seams in socks are irritating, doesn’t like the beach because of the grittiness of sand, doesn’t like to walk barefoot on wood floors, etc.)
- Slow to connect with others
- Stares at what seems empty space and points, smiles or talks with that empty space
- Talks with things in nature
- Thinks outside the box putting together seemingly mutually exclusive “boxes” of knowledge (i.e., creative and innovative)
- Walking dictionary
- Wants to “right” wrongs
Parenting a hypersensitive youngster on the autism spectrum can be extremely rewarding. However, some moms and dads admittedly find it exhausting. Raising a happy and well-adjusted hypersensitive youngster is possible, but it takes a set of special parenting skills to succeed. If you follow the simple strategies below, you’ll be helping your special needs youngster develop emotional strength and a sense of confidence in her ability to handle her own life.
1. Don’t be afraid to use age-appropriate discipline. Just because your youngster is hypersensitive doesn't mean she doesn't need rules, structure and boundaries in her life. Giving your youngster structure and clear boundaries (with respect) goes a long way.
2. Attempt to understand what’s behind your child’s hypersensitivity. Moms and dads often believe that their overly sensitive youngster is simply being “melodramatic” and making a fuss over nothing. While some kids on the autism spectrum have a flair for the dramatic, that does not diminish the intensity of their feelings. Many of these special needs kids have what psychologists refer to as “emotional super-sensitivity” or “over-excitability.” This means that they actually do experience feelings more intensely than others.
3. Don’t rescue your youngster. When he has a tantrum (as opposed to a meltdown) AND it is part of his pattern, simply allow him to whine, cry and have the tantrum. Don’t get angry, and don’t get into a conversation about whatever is causing him to act-out. Just be patient and let him handle it. As soon as he calms down, have a normal conversation about other events or activities. Don’t talk about whatever it was that he was tantrumming about. If he starts to get angry again, disengage. Remember that what you consistently give your attention to GROWS.
4. Ease transitions as much as possible. Give your child as much information as you can (e.g., “We will be leaving in 15 minutes to go the store. This is what we will be doing there. This is about how long it will take to finish our shopping. This is what we will do when we get home.”).
5. Explain to your youngster that she can handle her emotions. When things are calm, talk to her about the things that upset her. Offer some solutions and help solve her issues. After you have a few of these conversations, tell her that you’ve given her the information and coping strategies she needs to handle her own emotions. Let your youngster know that you’re not going to run to her rescue anymore when she is having a temper tantrum. Tell her that the emotions she has may be painful, but they always go away sooner rather than later. Also, let her know that you have confidence in her ability to calm herself down.
6. Help your youngster create an “emotional response scale.” Emotionally hypersensitive kids often respond to every negative experience as though it were the end of the world. They can’t help how they feel, but they can learn to put these uncomfortable situations into a helpful perspective, which can help them cope with their strong emotions. Here’s how to do this:
Take a sheet of paper and write the numbers 1 to 10 in a vertical list. Ask your youngster what he thinks would be the very worst thing that could happen (e.g., the house being destroyed during a tornado). Write this answer down next to the number 10. Then, ask your youngster what he thinks would be the most minor thing that could happen (e.g., having to go to bed 15 minutes early). Write this incident next to the number 1. Next, find a negative incident to write in the number 5 spot. Help your youngster come up with an incident that is not really bad and not really minor, but right in between the two extremes. Finally, fill in the rest of the numbers in the list. You and your youngster need to see the progression from the least to the worst thing that could happen.
Keep the emotional response scale handy so that you and your youngster can refer to it when needed. Whenever your youngster has a tantrum over something that didn’t go his way, you can then ask him to rate it according to the scale (he may act as though it's a number 10 incident, but then ask if he really believes the incident is the same as the number 10 incident on the scale – he will see that it's not). Eventually, your child will be better able to manage his emotional responses to various negative incidents in his life.
7. Have confidence in your youngster’s ability to manage his own life. Even though he may have a developmental disorder, there’s no reason to teach him that his life is in any way “less than” what it should be. If you view his life as sad or unfortunate, he will too. If you feel this way, you may adopt an over-protective parenting style. A child who is over-protected lacks the confidence to handle his own emotions or deal with difficult situations.
8. Hypersensitive kids are majorly impacted by their home and school environments. So, take the time to create spaces that match their temperament. For example, create a “relaxation corner” at home with just the right lighting, colors, sounds and surroundings where your child can relax with his headphones, favorite toys, books, etc., to feel peaceful. Hypersensitive kids crave this kind of serenity.
9. Recruit your youngster as a “partner in problem solving.” Hypersensitive kids respond far better to being requested to do something and “partnering” with their parents. Harsh discipline can provoke the exact behavior you are trying to avoid (e.g., tantrums, meltdowns, shutdowns, etc.). Partnering with your youngster means learning her triggers (e.g., sensory sensitivities), avoiding them as much as possible, and giving her tools when she feels frustrated and overwhelmed (e.g., breathing exercises).
10. The hypersensitive youngster tends to burst into tears any time she experiences a strong emotion (e.g., anger, frustration, etc.). For example, if you tell your daughter that her friend can't stay for dinner, she may suddenly become tearful. You can help by giving her the words for how she's feeling (e.g., “I know you're upset that Jenny can't stay for dinner"). Oftentimes, it can stop a child in her tracks to hear someone express her emotions. Even if it doesn't work in the moment, when your youngster hears you talking about her feelings again and again, she will eventually start noticing how she feels on her own instead of crying. Later, you can talk to your youngster about other ways to deal with uncomfortable emotions (e.g., taking a time-out, breathing exercises, etc.).
11. Train yourself to focus on your youngster's strengths (e.g., his incredible creativity, perceptiveness, keen intellect, etc.) rather than his weaknesses (e.g., being highly emotional, introverted, picky, over-reactive, etc.).
12. When your child is frustrated, make eye contact. Get down to her level (i.e., physically bend down to make eye contact), and acknowledge how she is feeling. Keep your voice calm and help her solve her problem. If she launches into a temper tantrum, say something like, “Throwing a tantrum is not going to solve your problem. What else can we do to solve this problem?”
Helping hypersensitive kids on the autism spectrum distinguish between emotions and actions is an important step in emotional development. All feelings are, in essence, impulses to act. It is important to teach your child that all of her emotions are okay. Even moms and dads feel sad, angry, worried, frustrated, etc., from time to time. Grown-ups can help special needs kids manage their behavior by helping them to identify acceptable ways to express feelings. This task can be accomplished by using some of the techniques listed above.
How to Prevent Meltdowns and Tantrums in Asperger's and HFA Children