Help Your Child With High Functioning Autism Manage Emotions

There is a myth that children with autism have few or no emotions. Nothing could be further from the truth. Children with autism may become emotional for different reasons or express their emotions differently, but they have just as many feelings as anyone else. In some cases, kids with autism may be even more emotional than some of their typical peers. So how do autistic kids let their feelings out? Sometimes they need help in getting it right.

Depressed sad child sitting on the floor, in the door. The little boy is hiding his head between legs.
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Why Emotions Are More Challenging for Kids With High Functioning Autism

High functioning autism can be very challenging. On the one hand, you have the language and cognitive skills to be placed in a typical environment. On the other hand, you lack the social, communication, and executive functioning skills to function well when a change occurs. At the same time, you may be coping with sensory dysfunction, anxiety, or other issues that make bright lights, loud noises, and high expectations almost impossible to manage.

When kids with autism, even high functioning kids, become extremely frustrated or angry, they often act out. When they do, they may behave in ways that surprise or shock the people around them. For example, they may:

  • Meltdown in a similar way to a much younger child, with tears and shouting
  • Run away from a difficult situation, sometimes in a dangerous setting such as a busy street
  • Become aggressive or self-abusive
  • Overreact to the situation and be unable to self-calm
  • Be unable to process logical information that, in another situation, would help him to calm down
  • Become too upset to listen to calming suggestions from parents, teachers, or therapists
  • Exhibit self-stimulatory behaviors (hand flapping, etc.)

Tips From Psychologist Drs. Robert Naseef and Cindy Ariel

Sometimes “mild” autism is anything but. It can be extremely challenging especially for children and their parents. None of us wants to see our child in pain when something is not working out.

Many, if not most, children who are diagnosed on the autism spectrum have difficulty regulating their emotions and maintaining a calm state. They may also be coping with some of the limitations they feel but cannot verbalize or understand in other ways.

The good news is that this can change and you can help. Here are some tips:

  • First of all, remind your child and yourself that when he cries it's caused by a feeling and that feeling will pass like a dark cloud. The sun will come out again even though it feels like the sky is falling. Help your child to learn to take a few slow deep breaths when he first begins to feel upset. Practice this regularly when he is not upset. Do it with him. Let him know that all of us, children and adults, get upset and have to learn how to calm ourselves.
  • Some meltdowns may involve your child’s reactions and his need to learn to deal with his sensitivities and frustrations and to modulate himself; to find comfort and encouragement from within. You can help him to learn to deal with his extreme emotional reactions by giving him ways to calm or comfort himself before going on. There are many ways to do this and most of us find our own ways over time. It helps some children to be alone for a few moments; it helps others to sit and talk with someone or to re-direct their thoughts to another place for a bit.
  • In neutral times, when your child is not upset, you can talk to her about ways she may be able to control her emotions from flaring up at home and at school. She can learn that it is her anxiety and frustration and that she can get through it with a little patience or by taking things in smaller steps. You can work with her and her teachers regarding the best ways for her to learn to calm herself down.
  • During times that you know a meltdown will likely ensue, you can sometimes cut it off by talking with him about it beforehand and discussing how he might avoid it this time, and even offer a possible reward for doing so. When he finally learns to modulate himself, the improved feeling of self-confidence will be its own reward, for both you and for him.

Robert Naseef, Ph.D., and Cindy Ariel, Ph.D., are the co-editors of Voices from the Spectrum: Parents, Grandparents, Siblings, People With Autism, and Professionals Share Their Wisdom (2006). Find them at Alternative Choices.

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  1. Mazefsky CA, Herrington J, Siegel M, et al. The role of emotion regulation in autism spectrum disorderJ Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 2013;52(7):679–688. doi:10.1016/j.jaac.2013.05.006