Aspergers Syndrome and Emotional Regulation
Children with Aspergers Syndrome have difficulty managing their emotions, particularly with recognising and understanding feelings and expressing their emotions appropriately. AS children usually have intense feelings that often overwhelm them - this is caused by their lack of emotional aptitude.
Neurotypicals enjoy 'emotional competence', which allows them to manage their interactions with others more effectively - they find ways to cope and adjust their behaviour to better suit the current situation.
Aspergers Syndrome children are usually impulsive, which deprives them of the ability to think things through and see the consequences of their actions. They do not recognise the physical reactions of emotions such as fear or excitement, as being signs of emotion, and so they miss vital clues that would enable them to regulate their feelings.
Children with Aspergers Syndrome use mimicry in situations as a coping strategy, so they may utter phrases they've heard on TV or repeat something you've said. They develop a 'script' to use in a variety of situations - mostly when dealing with conflict or confrontation. This is why sometimes what they say doesn't seem to 'fit' the situation.
Children with Aspergers Syndrome are not able to generalize any emotional competence skills they do have, and adapt them to new circumstances. This means their judgement of certain situations is incorrect - they can appear to lack common sense. Neurotypicals use feelings to help them interpret rules and make exceptions, whereas children with Aspergers Syndrome are black and white in their thinking.
Being fact driven, children with Aspergers Syndrome tend to focus on facts and overlook their feelings, because this makes better sense to them. Emotions help neurotypicals shape their morals and value systems; therefore not interpreting emotions correctly can negatively influence the principles your AS child develops. It's important to take the time to 'debrief' your Aspergers child after any major emotional 'incident' to ensure they've drawn the correct conclusions.
It's important to aim to expand your AS child's emotional vocabulary. Children usually begin with three basic emotions - happy, sad, and angry. Work at increasing your Asperger child's emotional vocabulary to include excited, surprised, worried, proud, embarrassed, content, peaceful and a feeling of anticipation etc. Use magazines to find pictures and label them.
Ensure you explain that emotions look 'different' on different people, and find as many different examples of an emotion as you can to highlight this.
Concentrate your efforts to expand your AS child's emotional vocabulary on members of your family first - Mum, Dad and siblings, as these relationships are the most important in your child's life, and understanding each other's emotions more accurately will help to create a calmer environment for all of you. You may like to take photos of each other displaying emotions and label them. Show variations of facial expression for each emotion and note their body language as well. You may like to make a game, using a mirror to capture facial expressions.
Once you've practised recognising emotions from facial expressions, enhance this knowledge by linking emotions to situations. E.g. 'What would embarrass you?', 'What would make you proud?' etc.
Complex emotional concepts, such as conflicting emotions, are more difficult to understand and explain to children with Aspergers Syndrome. After focussing on simple emotions for a month or two you should introduce a scenario containing conflicting emotions and discuss at length, once a week.
However, the black and white thinking of children with Aspergers Syndrome may never allow the dexterity to deal with emotionally complex situations such as this, on their own.
Working to maintain and increase your Asperger child's emotional competence is perhaps the most rewarding and worthwhile task you will undertake, in your journey on his/her path to an independent, happy life. After all, the key to successful relationships of all kinds lies in emotional competence.
About the author:
Nelle Frances is the mother of a 15 year old with Aspergers Syndrome, a Special Needs Educator and Author of the Ben and His Helmet series of books for Asperger children. Her site http://www.nellefrances.com offers resources, strategies, articles and links on Aspergers Syndrome for parents and teachers.