Children on the Autism Spectrum and Emotional Dysregulation

Emotional dysregulation is a term used in the mental health community to refer to an emotional response that is poorly modulated and does not fall within the conventionally accepted range of emotive response. Emotional dysregulation may be referred to as labile mood or mood swings.

Possible manifestations of emotional dysregulation include behavioral outbursts (e.g., destroying or throwing objects, aggression towards self or others, anger and rage, etc.). These variations usually occur in seconds to minutes or hours. Emotional dysregulation can lead to behavioral problems and can interfere with a child’s social interactions and relationships at home and school.

Emotional dysregulation is quite common in Aspergers and High-Functioning Autistic (HFA) children. In my practice, the most frequently asked question by parents is: “What do I do when my child loses control of his emotions?” When emotional dysregulation is occurring, the best reaction is to ensure the safety of all concerned. Know that this behavior is not planned, but instead is most often caused by subtle and perplexing triggers. When the behavior happens, everyone in its path feels pain – especially the Aspergers youngster.

When Your Aspergers or HFA Child Experiences Emotional Dysregulation:

1. Acknowledge your youngster’s effect on you. Many HFA kids will calm down if you acknowledge their impact — and get angrier if you don't. You might stop and say something like, "I've stopped the car (or "I am off the phone") and you have my full attention." Then, ask questions like, "What don't I understand?"

2. Avoid physical power struggles. Using your size and strength only exacerbates the problem. Imagine your youngster is feeling furious and picks up a stick. If you grab it before he has time to give it up voluntarily, he might try to hit you with it. Instead, you can avert danger and acknowledge your youngster’s power by saying, "Please put that down. You could hurt someone you love." (Obviously you would never allow someone to hurt or be hurt.)

3. Don't extend your child’s dysregulated state with too much discussion. If your youngster is feeling out of control or in a rage, a lot of talking may not help – in fact, it could prolong the problem.

4. It's natural for HFA children to sometimes have big feelings. You haven't done something wrong if your youngster has an occasional blow-up or melt-down. Moms and dads should only worry if the youngster is chronically, constantly out of control.

5. Keep breathing and stay relaxed. It's hard not to tense up when your youngster is getting out of control, but if you stay relaxed, he's more likely to follow. Sometimes we start holding our breath when things get tense. Instead, inhale, exhale and then talk through your own feelings in a clear and (if necessary) firm way.

6. Keep your own strong feelings separate from your child’s behavior. While it's often important to show your youngster what you feel, entering into his dysregulated state with your own anger will only escalate the situation. Take a breath, speak calmly, even leave the room and give yourself a time out if you need to.

7. Let the emotional dysregulation run its course as long as no one is being hurt. This is really crucial. A youngster who is filled with raw feelings may not know how to manage them. But he may feel reassured by your calmer presence. Then, you get back to the business of communicating.

8. Let your youngster express negative feelings without judging him. Imagine if every time you were upset, some bigger, taller, frowning person looked down at you and said, "Don't feel that way," or "Don't tell me that." Would you feel like calming down - or acting out?

9. Reflect your youngster’s feelings. You might say, "I can see how frustrated you are. Can you tell me what made you feel that way?" ("What" is always more important than "Why" — it asks for specifics.)

10. Seek professional help if you see a repeated, chronic pattern that you can't figure out. If your child’s destructive behavior escalates and becomes increasingly difficult to deal with, and if nothing works over a period of weeks or months, there may be an underlying issue that needs professional help. You can find a referral through a doctor, guidance counselor at your youngster’s school, a friend, neighbor, community center or place of worship.

11. Set limits that your youngster will find comforting. A limit is not a punishment. Limits may help your youngster learn how to calm himself down. Aspergers and HFA children find the “setting of limits” comforting and soothing. They need to know that you (the parent) are in control.

12. Slow down the process by saying, "I need a moment to think about this." If your youngster is starting to lose control, you can slow things down by giving feedback. You might say, "I can see you're upset. Let's talk."

13. Try not to take your youngster’s strong feelings personally. Many moms and dads feel frustrated or personally attacked if their youngster explodes at them. Don't take his strong feelings personally. “I hate you” is not actually a personal statement. What your youngster really may be saying is “I hate being out of control.”

14. Try to avoid threats in the heat of the moment. The moment you make irrational threats with punishments that do not suit the occasion, you are not talking about the topic anymore. In the heat of the moment, if you say, “If you throw that toy – I’ll ground you,” then the youngster may start to fight the grounding, and the original issue is lost.

15. Try to comfort your youngster physically. Each kid on the autism spectrum reacts to emotional dysregulation differently. Some will want to be held, others want to be left alone. If it seems right, you might try holding your youngster, if he will let you. If your child struggles ferociously, let go as long as no one will get hurt.

More resources for parents of children and teens with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism:

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