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Helping Kids on the Autism Spectrum to Develop Their Own “Emotional Toolbox”

Perhaps one of the best techniques we as parents of kids with ASD level 1, or High-Functioning Autism, can employ is the creation of an “emotional toolbox” designed to help the child to “repair” his or her feelings.

Most kids know that a toolbox usually includes a variety of tools to repair a machine, for example. So, parents can begin discussion and activities that are used to identify different types of “tools” for specific problems associated with feelings.

For example:
  • One type of “emotional repair tool” can be a paintbrush, which can be used to represent relaxation tools that lower the heart rate (e.g., drawing, reading, listening to calming music, etc.).
  • A picture of a manual can be used to represent thinking tools that are designed to improve cognitive processes (e.g., phrases that encourage reflection before reaction). James, a young man with ASD, developed his “antidote to toxic thoughts” through the use of this tool. He developed a “stop and think first” technique whenever he was upset and about to lash-out at someone.
  • A two-handle saw can be used to represent social activities or people who can help repair feelings (e.g., communication with someone who is known to be sympathetic and able to alleviate negative feelings). This can be by spoken word or typed communication, enabling the child to gain a new perspective on the problem and providing some practical advice. 
  • Another type of emotional repair tool can be represented by a hammer, which signifies physical “tools” for calming down (e.g., going for a walk, bouncing on a trampoline, crushing empty cans for recycling, etc.). The goal here is to repair emotions constructively by a safe physical act that increases the heart rate. One child with Asperger’s explained how running around the yard “takes the fight out of me.”

The idea is to provide a “repair statement” (i.e., self-talk) for the autistic child that counteracts his or her negative thoughts. For instance, “I can't deal with this (a toxic or negative thought), but I can do this with mom’s help (positive thought or antidote).” 

The child can also be taught that becoming overly-emotional often inhibits his or her intellectual abilities in a particular situation that requires good problem-solving skills. The self-talk here might be, “When I’m angry and frustrated, I need to cool down so I can think about how to solve this problem.”

The concept of a toolbox can be extremely helpful in enabling the youngster with ASD not only to repair her own feelings, but also to repair the feelings of others. Kids on the spectrum often benefit from instruction in learning what tools to use to help friends and family - and which tools others use - so that they may borrow tools to add to their own emotional repair kit.

Humor and imagination can be used as “thinking tools.” Contrary to popular myths, young people on the spectrum greatly benefit from laughter, can enjoy jokes typical of their developmental level, and can be very creative with puns and jokes.

Parents should also have a discussion of “inappropriate tools” (e.g., one would not use a hammer to fix a wrist watch) to explain how some actions (e.g., violence) are not appropriate emotional repair mechanisms. For instance, one child with Asperger’s would slap himself to stop negative thoughts and feelings, which only had a very temporary effect and did not solve the problem.

Another tool that could become inappropriate is for the child to repeatedly retreat into his fantasy world (e.g., imagining he is a superhero), or to plan retaliation. The use of escape into fantasy literature and games can be a typical tool for ordinary children. But for kids on the autism spectrum, escape is of concern when it becomes the exclusive coping mechanism (e.g., the fine line between fantasy and reality may be unclear to the child).

Another concern is when daydreams of retaliation to teasing/bullying are expressed in drawings, writing, and threats. Although this may be a typical means of emotional expression, there is a concern that the expression is misinterpreted as an intention to carry out the fantasy – or may be a precursor to retaliation using weapons.

Talking to pets as a “social tool” in preference to talking to friends or developing relationships with people is another inappropriate tool in some cases.

“Unusual tools” should also be discussed. For instance, one teenage girl with Asperger’s explained that, “Crying doesn't work for me, so I get mad.” In this case, tears were a rare response to feeling sad, with a more common response to sadness being anger, which caused others to misinterpret her behavior.

Another unusual tool is that of being quick at resolving grief and serious tragedies (e.g., death of a loved one). This trait can be of concern to the child’s parents, who expect the classic signs of prolonged and intense grieving. Parents may view the child as uncaring, yet the rapid recovery is simply a characteristic of the disorder.

Developing an emotional toolbox to “fix” feelings is a way to improve a child’s self-esteem, train her to be able to relate to others effectively, and help her develop a sense of how she learns best in the area of social skills and emotional control.

Resources for parents of children and teens on the autism spectrum:

==> Videos for Parents of Children and Teens with ASD

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