Emotional Regulation and Coping Strategies with ASD

autism emotional regulation

Regulating emotions can be a very daunting task for some individuals. Likewise, in an emotional situation or environment, keeping control can be very difficult.

If a situation which requires a higher level of composure is coupled with mental illness or a cognitive disorder such as Autism Spectrum Disorder, emotional control has the potential to become a secondary issue in this situation.

A recent study has recently been completed which demonstrates a neurological disconnect that may contribute to the inability of a person with ASD to handle a high stress/high sensory situation.

The study included 30 participants (15 with ASD and 15 without), and had them complete an emotional regulatory task while in an fMRI. This task had all participants view various pictures of people with neutral faces and no emotional cues. They were instructed to think positive, negative or neutral thoughts while viewing these pictures, and the neural areas that ‘lit up’ were recorded.

The results showed that regardless of instructed emotion, the participant’s pupils all dilated (meaning they were thinking hard about changing their emotion), and the prefrontal cortex and limbic systems of those without ASD ‘lit up’ much more than those with ASD. These two areas of the brain are significant as the limbic system is technically an evolutionarily ‘old’ part of the brain, and in tandem with the prefrontal cortex they control the regulation of emotions, decision-making, and needs.

These two areas were slow to start up and did not activate as strongly in participants who did not have ASD. If the structure that regulates emotion works differently in people with ASD, then emotions are expressed differently as well.

There have been many publications regarding overall strategies to help a child or individual cope with this unique style of emotional regulation. All of these publications include suggestions for the three pillars of ASD: communication, socialization, and behavioral patterns. In general, these strategies are repeated through each publication, which means they are tried and true for most cases.

Depending on who the tip sheet is written for, the child or individual is referred to as someone’s child, a student, or a client (if it is geared towards a behavioral therapist). Suggestions include having access to communication tools at all times and knowing how to paraphrase and simplify sentences without talking down to the child, helping the child/student understand common language like slang and puns, etc.

A key issue that is discussed is to not use sarcasm and to explain body language. Strategies to improve socialization include personal coping skills like not taking rude remarks/behavior personally, as well as using reinforcers to help condition proper social behavior. The child can be taught to recognize their behavior and emotions in addition to the behavior and emotions of those around them while working on simple social skills.

Finally, helping a child create positive habitual behavior patterns can begin to be accomplished by simply giving reinforcement, creating a routine, and being aware of anything that could cause anxiety. By utilizing resources that are aimed to help create a positive environment for an individual with ASD, one ensures their strongest chance for success and reaching their very best potential.

By Sydney Chasty, Carleton University