While persons with Asperger’s often have considerable intellectual capacity and a wealth of factual knowledge, emotions are invariably a source of confusion. While often adept at labeling objects, those with Asperger’s often have difficulty when it comes to labeling feelings. To help an individual with AS understand emotional complexities, it’s important to teach the descriptive words that identify feelings, sometimes called a “feeling vocabulary.”
Explicit teaching is also needed to convey the idea that emotional experiences are best thought of on a continuum, rather than an on/off switch. Working towards expressing feelings constructively (or at least not destructively) is another important component of increasing emotional intelligence and maturity. Lastly, all children, and most adults, can benefit from training in stress-reduction strategies and relaxation techniques.
Building Emotional Vocabulary: expressing feelings through language increases the likelihood of healthy problem-solving
Distinguishing Feelings from Thoughts: understanding the distinction between thoughts and feelings isn’t automatic for kids with ASD, and needs to be taught
Dealing With Difficult Emotions: managing the big three--fear, anger, and frustration
Managing Stress and Preventing Distress: mastering the same stress-relieving tools that work for business executives—deep breathing, muscle relaxation, and visualization
Building Emotional Vocabulary
Emotional literacy refers to the ability to recognize, label, and understand feelings in one’s self and in others. It is a prerequisite skill to regulating one’s emotions (for example, remaining calm in the face of disappointment or stress), interpersonal relationships, and problem solving. Many children with AS seem to have only two emotional settings—“happy” or “mad.” The subtle gradations of feelings in between are missed. A more comprehensive “feeling vocabulary” allows children to make finer discriminations between feelings and to communicate with others about their internal emotional states.
Labeling and verbalizing feelings is an important part in learning to regulate emotions. In general, children with disabilities have more limited feeling vocabularies as compared to their typically developing peers. To expand the feeling lexicon, adults can:
• Teach different feeling words and definitions directly, as well as in the context of spontaneous conversation and play (e.g, direct teaching of word and definition and then using the word—if you teach the word “nervous”, you might comment how someone seems a little nervous and what observations give you that impression).
• Use children’s books to build a “feeling vocabulary.” Learn more.
• Be a good role model by stating your feelings explicitly.
• Make reflective statements to help the child identify his own internal states (e.g., “That big smile makes me think that you’re feeling pretty happy right now!)
• Make a game out of watching TV with the sound muted and try to guess what the actors are feeling.
Distinguishing Feelings from Thoughts
While it’s important to respect your child’s feelings, also be sure to encourage logical reflection on emotion. You can help your child distinguish between her “thinking” and “feeling” parts (logic/information vs. raw emotion). Use extreme, obvious cases to start. For example, talk about someone who is afraid of butterflies. The person’s “feeling” side is stuck on fear, even though her “thinking” side knows that butterflies are harmless.
Dealing with Difficult Emotions
Encouraging a Continuum of Feelings
feelingi thermometerDue to the tendency to think in all-or-none terms, children with AS often seem to have an on-off switch for emotions, rather than experiencing a continuum of feelings. For example, Billy is either not at all angry or he is FURIOUS! To help your child to view feelings with more in-between settings, draw a thermometer on a piece of paper. With your child, fill in feeling words of increasing intensity as you move up the thermometer. This should be done with the basic emotions like happy, sad, afraid, and angry.
After this idea has been established, create another set of thermometers to explore a continuum of events. For example, low on the event thermometer might be “no Cheerios left at breakfast.” To have a high reaction to such a low-rated event would be silly. This process helps kids self-monitor their emotional reaction to the “horribleness” of a given event.
Negative Feelings Can Lead to Problem Solving
choice 1 2The upside of negative feelings is that they make people solve problems and think of new ways to do things. Tommy steps in dog poo on his way to school. He may feel angry at whoever was responsible, sad that he failed to avoid it, or afraid that he will get teased. A more productive approach is acknowledging his feelings, then moving from “this doesn’t feel right” to “what can I do to change this?”
The child with AS often needs a framework to get him from the feeling state to problem solving. Provide him with a framework and use this framework whenever possible in the course of daily family life. The framework is composed of a few simple steps that must be explicitly taught, practiced, and modeled:
1. Define the Problem
2. Brainstorm all possible solutions
3. What might happen if?
4. Possible consequences
5. Carry it out. Evaluate—did it work?
Managing Stress and Preventing Distress
Stress Reduction Tools
For the scientifically inclined, as many Aspies are, it may be beneficial to teach them the specific signs of physiological stress that accompany fear and how once this “alarm system” is tripped, the brain assumes that there is some danger and looks for something to pin it on. It’s important to practice these strategies when calm. Equipped with a better understanding of the biology involved, many feel more able to take charge.
To “reset” their alarm system, children can benefit from techniques like:
• Deep breathing. Take slow deep breaths. Count to five as you breath in and count to five as you breathe out. Do this five times.
• Progressive muscle relaxation. Beginning with your face, tighten all your muscles while you breathe in. Then, let all that air out as you exhale. Do the same thing, moving down the body and tightening the muscles in the chest and arms, then the hips and legs, all the way down to the toes.
• Visualization. Encourage your child to conjure up images that are pleasant and comforting so that they can take a mini-vacation whenever they need to!
• Practice. Just like as students have to have fire drills at schools to practice what to do in an emergency, you have to practice these strategies when you’re feeling calm. Without practice, you might not remember to do these things when your alarm system is going off.
Learning from bees.
Some children with ASD do not recognize a need to improve their social skills. How to explain what’s in it for them. Learn more.
What stimulates sensory systems, muscles and is calming to lie on top of? Stability balls. Learn more.
Losing track of time. Help your child with time management by making it visual. Learn more.
Addressing anxiety, depression, anger and low self-esteem. A game which can be used to help modify emotions. Learn more.
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