There is a change in the schedule… the student with ASD gets up and starts to pace while moaning “no! no! no!”. The student with ASD accidentally breaks his pencil … he pushes all his work off his desk and yells “I hate my life!”, then puts his head down on his desk. The lunch monitor fails to deliver the item that the student with ASD requested… she sobs inconsolably.
Despite our best efforts, students with ASD can become overwhelmed and have a huge emotional reaction to an event that, in our eyes, might seem inconsequential. There is increasing research that suggests that their emotional volatility is strongly related to the neuro-biological differences that make up the disorder. Although prevention is always the best strategy (e.g., eliminating the things that tend to trigger a “melt down”), at the moment of the emotional reaction, it’s important to have some effective strategies at your finger tips that can help the student regain emotional control with dignity.
Here are some tips to consider:
Deal with the emotion rather than the behaviour
Attempting corrective actions for the behaviour the child is displaying while he is emotionally upset will generally be ineffective and may escalate the situation. Responding to the emotion with supportive strategies will usually “calm” the situation more quickly.
An emotional reaction on your part is more likely to escalate the situation than it is to soothe or calm. As well, other students may become more concerned if you react strongly to the emotion the child displays… i.e., it may increase their worry or their potentially negative judgement of the student. Sometimes standing by the student while you continue with the lesson at hand can let the student know you’re concerned and that someone safe is close by to help.
Avoid any attempt to talk to the student about his feelings or behaviour when he is upset.
There is evidence that strong emotions can preclude the ability to process spoken information. Trying to talk to a student about his reaction when he is still upset is more likely to hinder than help his recovery.
Distract if possible
If you have an object or activity that the student usually finds calming, provide the object or try to direct them to the activity. Continue in a matter of fact manner with whatever you were doing. Let the student know you can help him shortly.
Have a plan
If the student has a history of large emotional reactions, create a plan that everyone is aware of that will be most effective in helping the student regain emotional control with dignity. Consider the negative impact his emotional reaction might have on his relationships with peers. Perhaps it would be wise to assign the peers a task outside the classroom until the student is calmer. Include the student in the development of the plan. He won’t be able to make good decisions when he is upset, but if you’ve talked about and rehearsed the plan with him prior to an emotional event, he will be better able to do what is needed. A plan might include providing him with a break or a bathroom card when he is upset to cue him to leave the class to go to an agreed upon calm down area.
If a student has had an emotional incident and has recovered, he may experience fatique, remorse or anxiety. When he is ready, talk to him about strategies he could use to deal with the events that can trigger his emotions. Be calm, practical, supportive and non-judgemental
Students with ASD seldom have huge emotional reactions on purpose. They lack the strategies to manage their feelings in age appropriate ways and during the emotional episode may have little awareness of the impact their behaviour has on others. Nonetheless, whether the student recognizes it or not, huge emotional reactions will impact how others perceive him, and can contribute to poor social relationships. As adults we need to teach strategies and model caring and understanding to counteract the negative effects that can result from emotional disregulation.
No More Meltdowns: Positive Strategies for Managing and Preventing Out of Control Behaviour by Jed Baker provides many practical examples and strategies for dealing with “out of control” emotions in young people with ASD at home and at school.
Exploring Feelings: Cognitive Behavoiur Therapy to Manage Anxiety by Dr. Tony Attwood helps kids build a toolkit to manage the feeling of anxiety. A partner book on Managing Anger is also available.
The Incredible 5 Point Scale by Kari Dunn Buron and Mitzi Curtis helps students identify levels of emotions and focuses on teaching strategies to defuse negative emotions.
Comic Strip Conversations by Carol Gray is designed to help teach conversational skills to students, but the techniques described in her book are also quite useful for de-briefing students who have difficulty understanding the perspective of others and react in ways that others don’t expect.
We found quite a comprehensive website from Australia called Kid’s Health: http://www.cyh.com/HealthTopics/HealthTopicCategories.aspx?p=287
Although it is not designed for individuals with ASD, it is written at a primary or early intermediate level and provides information and activities on a variety of topics related to feelings, including a section on Managing Your Feelings. We recommend parental guidance or adult supervision when accessing this website as there are sections which discuss sensitive topics such as suicide.