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Gareth D Morewood

How can we support the emotional regulation of children with autism?

Helping pupils with autism to regulate their emotions and handle changing states will greatly benefit their capacity to engage. Here's a summary of what you need to know and how you can help. 

Recently I have been fortunate enough to have took part in some powerful discussions with Studio III, who specialise in supporting individuals with a range of concerning behaviours such as the management of physical aggression, self-injurious behaviours (SIB), trauma/abuse, self-harm and autism.

Some of our discussions have been about emotional regulation and the commonalities with our ‘saturation model’ (Morewood, Humphrey & Symes, 2011) as part of a whole-school approach to supporting young people with autism.

Understanding emotional regulation

The concept of ‘emotional regulation’ is an interesting one and can be considered from the perspective of changes that occur over short periods of time, from moment to moment. 

Rather than focusing on the rote learning of discrete skills, we have been developing our thinking around a more personalised approach, supporting self-awareness and metacognition.

To this end, our developing work on emotional regulation also requires a focus on positive mental health; children with autism may not be as aware of the importance of emotions as others. They may:

  • not recognise the relationship between physical symptoms and emotional arousal.
  • have a more fragmented understanding of their emotional state and their levels of emotional arousal.
  • have poor coping strategies, which can increase the likelihood of depression and anxiety.

(Rieffe et al. 2011)

Taking these implications into consideration, it is important to teach children about their emotions in order to increase their awareness of their own emotional state.

It is also critical to teach children useful and appropriate coping strategies to deal with emotions; not through a ‘behavioural lens’ but as part of a child-centred, metacognitive approach.

This is often at odds with busy mainstream educational settings, and requires a cohesive whole-school approach.

When someone is emotionally well-regulated, they are better-equipped to learn and engage than someone who is emotionally dysregulated. I think all my colleagues would agree with this!

Changing states

In order to understand emotional regulation and dysregulation, it must be viewed on a continuum; from well-regulated states to mild, moderate and even extreme states of dysregulation.

A person may be able to continue to engage and learn, albeit less effectively, in mild and moderate states of dysregulation. However, in extreme states of dysregulation, a person is no longer capable of learning and engaging and may have little control over his or her actions.

Education professionals should bear in mind that children with autism often try to gain control over socially difficult or unpleasant situations, prompting uncontrollable emotional arousals. The child can then attempt to gain control by behaving in an aggressive manner towards others, trying to provoke typical negative reactions so that he or she knows what to expect. (Rieffe et al., 2012)

Extreme negative states are often referred to as ‘meltdown’, ‘out of control’ or ‘shutdown’.

There are many factors that can affect physiological state, including:

  • health status
  • sleep
  • arousal bias (low or high arousal)
  • associated biomedical conditions such as food sensitivities, environmental allergies and seizure activity.

The second dimension is a person’s emotional state and emotional experience; for example, whether a person is feeling content, fearful, anxious, joyful and so on.

The physical expression of a child with autism may not be a display of challenging behaviour, but could be viewed as a positive attempt by the child to self-regulate (Jahromi et al., 2012).

Most importantly, children need to be taught strategies for positive and effective emotional regulation. (Jahromi et al., 2012).

Difficulties arise for teachers and practitioners if they cannot recognise that the children are displaying difficulties with emotion regulation, or with a task (Jahromi et al., 2012).

Emotional regulation may also be described in reference to the strategies that a person uses or develops to maintain a well-regulated state.

A developing model

Our developing approach draws upon whole-school and community approaches to emotional regulation, and support increased understanding and the development of support for environmental factors such as:

  • the physical environment
  • the social environment
  • the communication environment
  • the emotional environment.

(Morewood et al. 2011)

This will feed into the developing model of support that I hope to cover in future blog posts, as our work progresses and we continue to consider its implications within the school setting.
Some of the key messages for consideration as we develop an approach are as follows:

  • Personalisation: an evidence base isn’t always vital; something that works with only 5% of the school population can still be incredibly useful
  • Flexibility and reasonable adjustments: organisational changes cannot be affected in a zero tolerance policy
  • Collaboration: you need the appropriate tools to do the job as part of a wider, whole-school approach.

Watch this space!

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