A lot of the students that we work with often have trouble with emotional regulation. So what are the best ways that we can help them learn this really important life skill? Today’s topic is all about emotional regulation in autism.
What is Emotional Regulation?
So I’m currently living in a house with three teenagers and there are a lot of emotions. I remember when my kids were young asking for advice on how to deal with these emotions. Because at the end of the day, I need them to do the things that they need to do. But I’m also a parent, and how do I deal with all of these emotions? One of the best pieces of advice I got was to just validate and empathize. When they’re feeling a certain way, I don’t have to solve it for them. I don’t have to get them to do something about it. I just have to be there for them and validate and say it’s okay to feel this way. Things can be hard sometimes.
I often think about discussions with my mother or when I’m out with my friends. You’ve had a tough day at work and all you want to do is vent. You’re just saying listen, here’s my tough day at work, here’s what happened. You’re venting about a topic, you’re not looking for advice.
What is Emotional Regulation in Autism?
But also, a lot of the kids that we work with have really explosive reactions. They really do need to have better ways of dealing with some of their emotions so that they’re more functional and safer. Very often in the moment, we try to just tell them to calm down. But that never works. So when we talk about emotional regulation, there are really two separate skills that need to be taught at the same time simultaneously.
One skill to teach is what it means to calm down. Whether that’s taking deep breaths, going for a walk, or taking a drink of water. Teach them a calming down routine and how to do that independently. The other skill is how to identify how they’re feeling. How to be able to say I’m feeling frustrated, or I’m feeling nervous, or I’m starting to get upset about something? We teach those skills separately, and simultaneously, and then they start to overlap because the strategies are going to be the same for feeling frustrated and doing a calming down routine.
Practical Strategies for Supporting Emotional Regulation in Students with Autism
When identifying emotions, make sure that you do it when they’re not upset. But validate them as well. It’s okay to feel this way, it’s just not okay to act on that. Here are some things that you can do instead.
One program to use is the three-point scale. This is based on the program Zones of Regulation, with a stoplight approach using green, yellow, and red. You can also include blue in there for feeling tired. Green is calm, yellow is a little bit frustrated or getting anxious, and red I’m really angry or I’m really anxious. If a student is more advanced in their language skills, you can have a five-point scale as well with different colors. But really, the first step is really just to say to a student, you’re feeling this way right now. We can even model with the scale by indicating the color we see.
Don’t use it as a threat, though. It’s not about “do I have to move you to the yellow zone?” It’s really just about showing the student that you see how they’re feeling. That’s it. And there’s no judgment on whether it’s good to be green or good to be yellow. We are just validating that all feelings are okay and we’re going to help you manage those feelings.
Teaching Students to Self Regulate
Something that I hear a lot is, well, my student just goes from green to red so quickly. While it may seem that way, there are usually some small subtle signs of when they’re starting to escalate. That’s what we’re trying to pick up on. The yellow area is a really important area where we want the student to be able to start to identify their feelings and we want to be able to start noticing what those precursors look like.
So up until this point we’ve been labeling the emotions for the students. We eventually want the students to label the emotions for themselves. Our teaching procedure walks you through that. And then the next step of this is, once we’ve identified emotions, here are some steps in order to get you back to the green zone. This includes other programs we have, like our calming routine.
Sometimes we need to incorporate other visuals to individualize the program to our learners. For instance, think about your favorite things like the subway or elevators. Sometimes we break down breathing into more visuals because taking five deep breaths means nothing to an individual. And the best way to teach these programs is separate from when they’re actually in the red zone. So when they’re calm, we can say, hey, let’s practice your calm-down routine. It’s going to be really hard for students to learn a new skill when they’re upset. So practicing it when they’re calm is the best way to teach it.
In review, the steps for teaching emotional regulation in autism is to start with modeling it with very little expectation on the student to then eventually the student doing more of it after the therapist, and then ultimately the student independently being able to use the calming strategy themselves.
Download the three-point scale visuals below and join the Bx Resource Membership to get these detailed programs, visuals, and data sheets to use with your clients.