By Professor Tony Attwood and Dr Michelle Garnett
Autistic children and adults may have a limited range of emotion repair mechanisms and are less likely to use effective strategies used by typical children and adults, such as putting the event in perspective, reappraising the situation, considering alternative responses, acceptance, or being able to disclose feelings to another person, thus seeking, and benefiting from compassion, validation and affection from a family member or friend. However, autistic children and adults can learn new emotion-repair strategies, and these can be conceptualised as acquiring more emotion-repair tools.
From a very early age, children will know a toolbox contains a variety of different tools to repair a machine or fix a household problem. The strategy is to identify different types of ‘tools’ to fix the problems associated with negative emotions, especially anxiety. The emotion repair for autistic children and adults can be conceptualised as a problem with ‘energy management’, namely, an excessive amount of emotional energy and difficulty controlling and releasing the energy constructively. Autistic individuals appear less able to slowly release emotional energy by relaxation and reflection, and usually prefer to fix or release the feeling by an energetic, potentially destructive action or thought and emotion-blocking action.
The range of tools can be divided into those that quickly and constructively release, or slowly reduce, emotional energy, and those that improve thinking or reduce sensory responsiveness, as well as taking out of the toolbox those tools that can make the emotions or consequences worse such as self-harm.
A hammer can represent tools or actions that physically release emotional energy through a constructive and acceptable activity. For young autistic children, this can include bouncing on the trampoline, going on a swing or using playground equipment. Although these facilities may be available at a school, they may not be used by an autistic child due to the number of children using the same equipment, and the autistic child’s need to achieve solitude and avoid social interactions during break times. They may have special dispensation to use such equipment when the other children are in class. At home, it is easier to encourage such physical activities as an emotional repair mechanism.
For older children and adolescents, going for a run, or dancing alone in a bedroom may be used to ‘let off steam’ or release suppressed or increasing emotional energy. An autistic adult described how ‘running keeps anxiety away.’ Other activities may include cycling, swimming or playing the drums, tennis practice or horse riding, and going to a fitness centre.
Unfortunately, autistic children and adults often feel, and indeed may be, clumsy and poorly coordinated, and have often been teased in the past by peers for not being good at team sports and ball games. While research has confirmed that physical exercise decreases repetitive behaviour, aggression, inattentiveness and escape behaviours in autistic children (Lang et al., 2010), there may be limited motivation and low self-confidence with physical activities. A personal trainer may be able to assess the child or adult’s body type and personality and design a specific programme of realistic and achievable physical activities that can be completed in solitude, and do not involve activities in a social context where there is a risk of ridicule. We recognize that regular exercise is excellent for mental and physical health, but also to improve clarity of thought and problem-solving abilities. ‘Exercise will make you smarter’ is a concept we explain to autistic children and adults who often value and seek to demonstrate their intellectual ability.
Some autistic children and adults have identified that destruction is a physical tool that can be a very effective ‘quick fix’ to end unpleasant feelings of suppressed or increasing anxiety, depression and anger. At home, there are some household activities that provide a satisfying and constructive release of potentially destructive energy, without causing damage that may require expensive repairs. For example, empty cans, water bottles or packaging can be crushed for recycling, or old clothes torn up to make rags. This ‘creative destruction’ might be the repair mechanism of first choice at home, and especially when returning home from school or work.
Typical children and adults usually know intuitively how to relax, and it is a state of mind that they will have often experienced. This may not be the case with an autistic person. Our extensive clinical experience has indicated that there is often a difficulty in achieving a state of relaxation, and confusion as to what to do when someone says, ‘Just relax.’
Relaxation tools help the person lower their heart rate and gradually release and reduce emotional energy. Perhaps a picture of a paintbrush or spirit level could be used to illustrate this category of tools for emotional repair. Relaxation tools or activities could include drawing, reading and especially listening to calming music to slowly unwind negative thoughts and fears. Routine chores or activities can result in a sense of accomplishment, satisfaction and relaxation when complete.
A characteristic of autism is that solitude, in the sense of being alone rather than lonely, is a very effective means of relaxing. Being away from people, and from certain sensory experiences – perhaps retreating to a quiet, secluded sanctuary – is often an effective way of reducing anxiety and stress and achieving relaxation and emotional repair. The autistic person will need islands of tranquillity and solitude both at school or work and at home. It may be possible for the autistic child or their parent to talk to a teacher about accessing somewhere secluded at school during break times or recess, for example, the library. Such solitude can be emotionally refreshing and a means of true and deep relaxation. A further source of relaxation can come from being in nature, walking or camping in a natural environment, with few social encounters and only natural sensory experiences and engaging with the wildlife.
Cue-controlled relaxation is also a useful emotion repair tool. The strategy is for the person to have an object, perhaps hidden in his or her pocket, that, through association, symbolizes and engenders feelings of being calm and relaxed. For example, an autistic child may feel relaxed when on holiday and going fishing: thus, a fishing float in a pocket can be retrieved and looked at to recreate the feelings, images and sensations of relaxation and enjoyment when fishing.
In Western cultures, there is a growing awareness and appreciation of the value of activities such as yoga and meditation in encouraging a general sense of well-being and providing an antidote to anxiety. We now have yoga activities specifically developed for autistic children to use at school and home (Betts & Betts, 2006; Bolls & Sewell, 2013; Mitchell 2014; Hardy, 2015), and some teachers are now using classroom and individual meditation activities to encourage relaxation and enhanced attention for the whole class. Mindfulness is also being used to regulate attention toward the present moment, to let an emotion pass and encouraging an attitude of openness and acceptance using imagery, meditation and yoga (De Bruin et al., 2015).
A meta-analysis of 123 studies of the effects of meditation of the brain found that eight regions of the brain were consistently enhanced in meditators (Fox et al. 2014). All eight brain areas are associated with autism. Thus, meditation can be perceived as a form of therapy for autism.
There are more tools we can offer to our autistic children to equip them to manage their strong emotions. See More Tools for Autistic Children and Teenagers to Manage their Emotions
Betts, D. E., & Betts, S. W. (2006). Yoga for children with autism spectrum disorders: a step-by-step guide for parents and caregivers. London, Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Bolls, U. D., & Sewell, R. (2013). Meditation for Aspies: Everyday Techniques to Help People with Asperger Syndrome Take Control and Improve Their Lives. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
De Bruin, E. I., Blom, R., Smit, F. M., Van Steensel, F. J., & Bögels, S. M. (2015). MYmind: Mindfulness training for Youngsters with autism spectrum disorders and their parents. Autism, 19(8), 906-914.
Fox et al 2014, Neuroscience & Biobehavioural Review, (Apr), 20140409.
Hardy, S. T. (2014). Asanas for Autism and Special Needs: Yoga to Help Children with their Emotions, Self-Regulation and Body Awareness. London. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Lang, R., Regester, A., Lauderdale, S., Ashbaugh, K., & Haring, A. (2010). Treatment of anxiety in autism spectrum disorders using cognitive behaviour therapy: A systematic review. Developmental Neurorehabilitation, 13(1), 53-63.
Mitchell, C. (2013). Mindful Living with Asperger’s Syndrome: Everyday Mindfulness Practices to Help You Tune in to the Present Moment. London. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.