Emotions are linked with our 8th sense, interoception which is our inner ability to read our body’s signals. Have you ever heard of the expression: think with your head but follow your heart? Well emotions, at times, can outweigh our logical thought and that is why understanding the complexity of emotions can be difficult for someone who is autistic.
My son is not an emotionless robot. He has compassion and is very loving and caring. One time, his younger cousin was upset so he went over to her and handed her one of his toys to cheer her up. He just sometimes finds it hard to judge social situations to figure out what his emotional response should be. If you think about it, at a football match you could have some people crying, some maybe angry and others very happy. One social scenario can spark a ray of different emotional responses, so this makes it hard for an autistic person to interpret. This relates to mindblindness, not being able to see someone else’s point of view.
The frustration of not understanding a social situation can provoke an emotional response of anger or upset. Sometimes we need to be mindful that some people need more time to process information. Not everyone knows how to instantly react in a situation.
When my son has trouble identifying emotions, he studies my face and logically matches my expressions to an emotion, however, can lack awareness of the depth of emotion. Recently he has mentioned that I confuse him. He said that I have five different laughs and that I only need one. He has been studying me in social situations to figure out when I use a harder laugh oppose to a softer one. He will imitate me by mimicking my laughs. To someone on the outside, it may seem as though he is mocking me when in fact he is just learning.
I remember a few years ago I would wait outside the school classroom for my son. He came out and chucked his bag at me because I was over smiling. My smile had to be like the other parents. He was not happy. His anxiety would build up throughout the day and by the time I picked him up, from a scale of 1-10 he would be at a 10. Now he has several breaks throughout the day to regulate his emotions and to reduce his anxiety.
When my parents pick my son up from school, it is common that he will not speak to them. I am thankful that my parents are understanding and do not take this personally. My son has a going home routine. I would drive home not asking him any questions and then when we arrived, he would spend usually thirty minutes in his sensory den. After this he would speak to me then we would have dinner. He tends not to use the sensory den anymore and has moved onto ripping up cardboard and paper to create artwork. Now, when I pick my son up from school, he will speak to me! On the inside I am jumping for joy but on the outside have to act like this isn’t a big achievement. Plus, I do not wish to embarrass him.
There are many ways to reduce anxiety caused by social situations and sensory overload. When times get too hard, me and my son enjoy being silly and dance around our home. In my previous blog: “SEN Support in Mainstream Schools,” I suggested having a sensory room or sensory garden at school. Play therapy is a method used in some schools. Pilates is also a stress relieving activity.
The motion of running sand and water can be very therapeutic. Blowing bubbles also helps with anxiety as it assists with controlling your breathing. Stress balls and fidget toys are very handy too.
My son goes swimming once a week. Incorporating a physical activity helps reduce stress and anxiety. Working out improves emotional stability as endorphins are released, which gives us a happy sensation.
There are several emotions activities that you can incorporate into a person’s learning. Praise and focusing on positive behaviour is a great way to promote a happy response. You could use a reward chart for this.
Too much verbal input can be frustration so use as much visual support as possible. In general, we all need visual prompts at times. (road signs/satnavs…etc) Social stories are always good to use.
I have created a puzzle as an idea for an activity on emotions. You could use a photocopy of a family member’s photo, which makes the activity more relatable to the person. For my son I have used an image of myself, laminated it and cut it into four puzzle pieces.
What activities work best for you?