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Teaching Children with Autism to Regulate Emotions through ABA Therapy

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According to a 2021 study, autistic children and teens are four times more likely to have difficulty controlling their emotions than their neurotypical counterparts. 

From biting, hitting, and tantrums to social withdrawal, self-injury, and extreme silliness, there are many ways that autistic children express themselves. 

This type of emotional dysregulation or difficulty controlling emotions can be helped through an evidence-based approach: ABA therapy.

At Heartlinks, our young autistic clients work with therapists to build the crucial emotional regulation skills to recognize and express their feelings appropriately.

Yes, autistic teens and kids have difficulty controlling their emotions, but with ABA therapy, that doesn’t have to be the case with your child. 

What is Emotional Regulation?

The definition of emotional regulation is the capacity to understand and manage situations that can cause feelings of anxiety, frustration, and stress.

Emotional regulation is vital for developing relationships, maintaining general health, and handling various social situations. 

Yet, children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) often have difficulty regulating their emotions. They can experience dramatic mood swings, have difficulty responding in a socially appropriate way to emotional stimuli, and find it challenging to identify their feelings.

What are the Emotional Regulation Strategies Used In ABA Therapy?

The good news is by working with an ABA therapist, your child can learn critical emotional regulation skills. ABA therapy is more than treating what is observable and measurable; it also includes understanding the feelings we can’t see.

The following are a few ABA therapy strategies used in teaching emotional regulation.

Emotion Charts

The autism emotion chart, or simply emotions chart, is a visual aid to help children with ASD understand and subsequently manage their emotions. 

The chart incorporates a range of emotions, including sad, happy, angry, and anxious. Each emotion has a corresponding color and description of the physical sensations associated with that feeling.  

For example, the emotion of anger might be red in color, and the associated physical sense might be a flush of heat in the body or clenched teeth.

The idea is that autistic children use the chart to identify and categorize their feelings. It’s also an excellent tool to help ABA therapists teach self-regulation strategies for difficult emotions.

It’s vital that together, the ABA therapist and child regularly revisit the emotion chart to update it. The child’s understanding of their emotions and the associated vocabulary will undoubtedly expand as they work with their therapist.

Model Appropriate Behavior

Modeling is a technique used in ABA therapy where the child copies or imitates the appropriate behavior from someone (i.e., an ABA therapist) who’s already mastered the skill.

Teacher giving student high five

An example of modeling behavior is if an ABA therapist says something to the effect, “I’m feeling really sad right now; I’m going to go and ask my friend for a hug.”

Another example might be if an autistic child sits down and takes deep breaths after feeling mad. The ABA therapist might say, “I saw that you were angry, but sat down and took deep breaths to calm yourself. Well done! ”

In both examples, the child is learning to identify and understand their emotions, but most importantly, they’re learning to regulate them. 

Not only does modeling teach a child on the spectrum appropriate behaviors around emotions, but it can help improve their communication and social skills

Provide Feedback and Reinforce Good Behavior.

Providing feedback through praise to an autistic child who demonstrates effective emotional regulation is invaluable. 

It’s important to remember that an ABA therapist will never applaud a child who acts calm when they get mad. Instead, they’ll praise the child for recognizing their emotion and choosing not to act out on it.

Feedback can also be positive reinforcement for emotional regulation. 

For example, if a child feels sad because they weren’t asked to participate in a game at recess, they express their disappointment to the ABA therapist instead of screaming and crying in front of everyone. 

That positive emotional regulation might garner the child extra time out on the school playground from their therapist. 

 Encourage Social Interaction

Kids outside playing tug of war

Whether your child is neurotypical or autistic, the advantages of play are many, including its ability to regulate a child’s emotions.

Play forces children to be in the here and now. Children don’t have time to think about their feelings around a particular situation if they’re having fun.

Play also helps children expand their imaginations and subsequently allows them to process their emotions, including fear or anger. In particular, pretend play, where they act out scenarios, can help them determine the best course of action should a similar situation arise.

Teach them Coping Mechanisms

Children with ASD often experience strong emotions when exposed to different types of sensory input. Whether it is bright or pulsating lights, pungent smells, or loud noise, when confronted with any of these stimuli, autistic children will have meltdowns, tantrums, or ultimately withdraw both physically and emotionally.

ABA therapy is and continues to be instrumental in showing autistic children and their families different ways to handle sensory overload through coping strategies. These adaptive tools could include headphones in places where it gets loud, wearing sunglasses when visiting sites with bright lights, or deep breathing should the sensory stimuli feel entirely overwhelming.   

Learn More with Heartlinks

Emotional regulation for autistic children can be challenging. They see and interpret the world much differently than their neurotypical peers, so their reactions to stimuli are different.

At Heartlinks, the goal of ABA therapy is not to alter how our young autistic clients view their environment. Instead, we aim to teach them appropriate ways of reacting to that environment without sacrificing their emotional well-being.

Contact us for more information on how we can help your child with emotional regulation.

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