Emotional Regulation and Autism

What is emotional regulation and why do individuals with autism have difficulty with it?

Emotional regulation is an individual’s ability to adapt to situations that evoke stress, anxiety, annoyance, or frustration.  One of the big reasons that people with autism have difficulty managing difficult, emotionally-charged situations has to do with changes in their brain structure.  Research has shown that many people with autism have structural anomalies in their prefrontal cortex, which is a part of the brain that governs an ability known as “executive function.”  Executive function can be thought of as the operating system of the brain.  It allows people to manage their behavior by guiding how they reason, plan, and how responsive they are in different situations.  Changes to the prefrontal structure are thought to be reflected in changes to executive functioning in people with autism.


What does it look like when someone is having trouble with emotional self-regulation?

  • They might throw what resembles a “temper tantrum.” They may raise their voice and become extremely upset or frustrated.  In general, this may mean that autistic people will have larger reactions to situations than their peers.
  • They may express negative emotions for longer periods of time than their peers.
  • They may experience frequent mood swings


How can you improve your child’s emotional regulation?

There are several strategies that can be employed to improve how your child regulates their emotions.  This can involve explaining and demonstrating better coping strategies through role-play and leading by example by using these strategies in your daily life.

Adaptive (helpful) coping strategies include the following:

  • Distraction (typically is seen as a way to reduce negative thinking overall)
  • Trivializing (when downplaying the emotional impact by rephrasing the situation)
  • Taking deep breaths
  • Counting to twenty
  • Asking for help
  • Talking to a friend
  • Coming up with a compromise
  • Meditation
  • Planning
  • Positive re-framing
  • Acceptance
  • Humor
  • Religion

Maladaptive (unhelpful) coping strategies include the following:

  • Denial
  • Venting
  • Substance Use
  • Behavioral Disengagement
  • Self-Blame

Another strategy that can be used to manage emotions is making a visual aid with emojis to chart emotions.  Charting emotions can be valuable especially if you use pictures or phrases that can express various levels of the emotion. When practicing “what if” situations, it may be helpful to create situations and have your child judge which picture depicts the appropriate emotional response.


Can cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) help?

Yes!  CBT can help those with autism in many ways.  First, many autistic people have difficulty acknowledging their emotions and how intense they are in the moment; this is the first step to being able to regulate emotions, so it is extremely important to walk through these steps of recognition.  Another helpful aspect of CBT therapy is managing those intense emotions.  This starts with learning how to change your thought process, becoming self-aware, and developing relaxation techniques.  Overall, CBT for those with autism has been shown not only to improve emotional regulation, but also improve their mental health because these techniques were developed as interventions for those with anxiety and depression.