Help Your Child with High Functioning Autism to Manage Emotions

Even kids with very high functioning autism have emotional meltdowns.

A 4 years old girl sulking
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My son is seven years old and has been diagnosed with mild autism. He is very emotional and so sensitive at times that he cries over anything going wrong or not working out or not remembering. So much so that when he has these spells in class now they have to pull him away from what he is doing so he can calm down. Do you have any recommendations as to what I can do to help him? He is very hard on himself when he gets answers wrong or does things incorrectly, yet we always encourage him.

From Dr. Robert Naseef:

Sometimes “mild” autism is anything but. It can be extremely challenging especially for children (like your son) 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. Given his diagnosis, your son is typical.

Children with special needs, such as autism, go through the same stages and challenges as typical children, but it usually takes them longer to get through them. They get stuck in all the cracks and corners of everyday life, and they need more help to learn how to deal with the upsets of everyday life. Parents, too, get upset and there are certainly more upsets and they are far more intense when a child has autism.

The good news is that this can change and you can help. First of all, remind your son and yourself that when he cries it is caused by a feeling and that will pass like a dark cloud.

The sun will come out again even though it feels like the sky is falling. Help your son 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.

What his teachers are doing is helping him to focus on something else by removing him from the scene of the upset. In the long run, the goal can be for him to learn this cognitive-behavioral technique by gently moving his mind to something else. Certainly keep encouraging him, for you are on the right track.

From Dr. Cindy Ariel:

Your son, like many children on the autism spectrum, can become very frustrated with many of life’s moments. These can be made even more stressful by some of the limitations he feels but cannot verbalize or understand in other ways. At the same time, he has also not yet learned to deal with, express and regulate his emotions and so, the meltdowns happen. No doubt, this is extremely frustrating and discouraging for him and for you as his parent.

It is important to continue to be very encouraging, as you have been, and be sensitive to possible meltdowns so that some of them can be headed off before they begin. It is also important that some situations that frustrate or upset your son continue to happen; you will not be able to protect him from all of life’s frustrating moments, and therefore it is important for him to go through them and learn from them. This is the part that you can help him with but it will take time as he learns and grows through this very difficult of life’s many lessons.

Some of the meltdowns that you describe involve your son’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 there is no upset you can talk to your son about ways he may be able to control his emotions from flaring up at home and at school.

He can learn that it is his anxiety and frustration and that he can get through it with a little patience or by taking things in smaller steps. You can work with him and his teachers regarding the best ways for him to learn to calm himself 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 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 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). On the web at .

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