Children with autism are usually poor at identifying, understanding, expressing, and handling their emotions. Meltdowns and tantrums can be common, and the ability to recover from these outbursts can be elusive. However, such children can begin to thrive when they begin to manage their feelings. Emotion coaching is therefore a crucial component of any autism therapy program.
Helping children with autism deal with feelings should be accomplished not only during play dates and social skills practice, but also during more traditional cognitive and academic behavioral teaching. In fact, an argument can be made that the ability to handle emotions is a prerequisite to excelling academically.
Dr. Stanley Greenspan, who emphasized the importance of learning emotions and social skills for children with autism, discussed the need to teach those skills together with academics in “Engaging Autism.”
“We now understand that the lines of early development are interrelated,” wrote Greenspan. “Rather than assessing language skills, motor skills, and social-emotional skills separately, we should look at how well these abilities are integrated, how they work together as a whole.”
In “Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child,” John Gottman wrote, “Even more than IQ, your emotional awareness and ability determines your success and happiness. For kids, it means controlling impulses, delaying gratification, motivating themselves, reading other people’s social cues, and coping with ups and downs.”
People who have high cognitive skills combined with an inability to handle their temper can have major problems in life because others may not understand why there is such a large gap between their intelligence and emotional awareness.
It’s critical to teach children with autism about emotions early and often. Use meltdowns as opportunities to teach children how to practice techniques to cool down. Here are some strategies that can help children with autism handle their emotions.
Validate their feelings.
Don’t diminish what they say by telling them they should not be upset. Gottman writes, “Don’t be harsh, critical, or dismissing of your child’s emotions. See things from the child’s perspective.” Identify with them by saying that everyone feels badly sometimes — even adults.
Give children strategies to self-regulate emotions.
Examples include having children:
• Take deep breaths. Have them breathe into their hands or blow on a pinwheel or leaf.
• Stare at a leaf and count the lines on the leaf. Without knowing it, they will be doing a meditation exercise designed to calm and focus them.
• Count to 10 or 20.
• Talk about it with a parent, teacher, or friend.
• Write down their feelings.
• Ask to take a break.
• Exercise. Teach them yoga exercises and poses.
• Read a book about emotions.
Video or audio tape them complaining or having a tantrum.
Contrast this with a tape of them acting appropriately. Show them both versions so they can understand how others perceive them. This can be helpful in teaching theory of mind, or the ability to imagine what others may be thinking or how they are perceiving things.
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