Help Your Child With Autism Manage Emotions

High-functioning kids can learn better regulation and expression

Children with autism often struggle with emotional regulation. Big emotions in autism can be related to problems with sensory integration, communication deficits, and difficulty understanding social cues—and they can be hard to regulate and express appropriately.

Emotional outbursts can be hard for everyone involved. While emotional regulation does not come naturally to those with autism, it is a skill that can be taught.

This article provides tips for helping a child with high-functioning autism better manage their emotions. It explains the causes of autistic emotional outbursts and how to help your child learn to handle their emotions better.

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 Challenging

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 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 like a much younger child, with tears and shouting
  • Run away from a difficult situation, sometimes putting themselves in danger
  • 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 them to calm down
  • Become too upset to listen to calming suggestions
  • Exhibit self-stimulatory behaviors (hand flapping, etc.)

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.

Sometimes “mild” autism is anything but. It can be extremely challenging especially for children and their parents. No one wants to see their child in pain when something is not working out.

This can change and you can help. Robert Naseef, Ph.D., and Cindy Ariel, Ph.D., psychologists who co-founded a practice specializing in helping families with challenges related to a loved one's health condition, offer the following professional tips.

Remind Them The Feeling Will Pass

Remind your child (and yourself) that crying is 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 right now.

Help your child to learn to take a few slow deep breaths when they first begin to feel upset. Practice this regularly with them when they're not upset.

Let them know that all of us, children and adults, get upset and have to learn how to calm ourselves.

Help Devise Meltdown Strategies

Some meltdowns may involve your child’s reactions and their need to learn to deal with sensitivities and frustrations and to modulate themselves; to find comfort and encouragement from within.

You can help your child learn to deal with extreme emotional reactions by giving them ways to calm or comfort themselves before going on. There are many ways to do this, and most of us find our own ways over time.

For example, 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.

Advise Them During Calm Times

In neutral times, when your child is not upset, you can talk to them about ways to keep their emotions from flaring up. By learning to own their anxiety and frustration, they can get through it with a little patience or by taking things in smaller steps.

You can work with your child and their teachers regarding the best ways for them to learn to calm down.

Head Off the Inevitable

During times that you know a meltdown is likely, you can sometimes cut it off by talking with your child about it beforehand and discussing how they might avoid it this time. You might even want to offer a reward for doing so.

When your child finally learns to modulate themselves, the improved feeling of self-confidence will be its own reward, for both you and for them.

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.

4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Joshi G, Wozniak J, Fitzgerald M, et al. High risk for severe emotional dysregulation in psychiatrically referred youth with autism spectrum disorder: a controlled study. J Autism Dev Disord. 2018;48(9):3101-3115. doi: 10.1007/s10803-018-3542-9

  3. Jahromi LB, Meek SE, Ober-Reynolds S. Emotion regulation in the context of frustration in children with high functioning autism and their typical peers: Emotion regulation in autism. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. 2012;53(12):1250-1258. doi: 10.1111/j.1469-7610.2012.02560.x

  4. Cheung, P. P. P., & Lau, B. W. M. (2020). Neurobiology of sensory processing in autism spectrum disorder. In M. Ilieva, & W. K-W. Lau (Eds.), Progress in Molecular Biology and Translational Science (pp. 161-181). (Progress in Molecular Biology and Translational Science; Vol. 173). Elsevier B.V. doi: 10.1016/bs.pmbts.2020.04.020

By Lisa Jo Rudy
Lisa Jo Rudy, MDiv, is a writer, advocate, author, and consultant specializing in the field of autism.