Big emotions and how Psychologists help autistic kids

Big emotions. Children with autism can be quick to ‘flip their lids’. Our psychologists, working with speech pathologists and occupational therapists, help our autistic kids with their regulation of big emotions. Here’s 5 things our psychologists help with.

5 things a psychologist can help with

1. Big emotions

Our kids get big emotions. They can very quickly with very little triggers get frustrated, angry, intolerant and aggressive. Having strategies from psychologists to help with these big emotions is important. Our psychologists help talk through problems, talking about the big emotions. But they also provide helpful structures for the future such as

  • problem solving help
  • using scales of intensity of emotions
  • giving actions and steps for calming when the emotions get big

Problem Solving with PLACE

P – is there a Problem

L – Let it go? if not, go to the next step

A – what are some possible Actions to solve the problem?

C – which action will I Choose?

E – Evaluate. Did it work for you?

Scales of big emotions

We create new 1-5 scales every year, based on what our child is interested in (pokemon, minecraft, game characters, movie characters).

How big?How do you feel?Feelings, Actions, Thoughts?What is another choice?
5Out of controlnot able to listen. throwing things. yelling.STOP
4Starting to lose controlthrowing things. hitting self.STOP
3Anxious…excitedjumping up and down. making noise. not stopping to think or listenPause. A-B-C-D or HALT-U
2I think I can handle itbouncy but happy. saying things. can still pay attention and listen to people
1Just rightvery calm

Having a scale doesn’t stop big emotions. But it does give a common language to use, and prompt reflection on what happens when you do reach a 4 or 5. Knowing the signs, both internal (interoception) and external, can help address the emotions before they get out of control.

2 ways to calm down big emotions

A-B-C-D and HALT-U are two acronyms used to prompt for calming steps.

When emotions get big, try to

A – step Away (move away from the situation or people making you upset)

B – Breathing (try a quick breathing exercise to calm down)

C – Calming recipes (if breathing wasn’t enough, select another calming strategy from the ‘jar of calming’)

D – Different (do something different, another activity or distraction to get your thoughts moving on)

When trying to figure out what’s causing a problem, regulation or discomfort, try HALT-U

H – are you hungry or thirsty?
A – are you angry or frustrated?
L – are you needing to loo?
T – are you tired or needing a rest?
U – are you uncomfortable (hot/cold)?

An alternative A-B-C-D is AWAY (take a break and move away) BREAK (take a break and check my thoughts – is it a big problem or not?) COMFORT (make myself more comfortable) DRINK (have a snack and drink of water)

You can combine the most effective calming strategies and thinking routines for big emotions into any easy to remember acronym of steps that works for you! And remember – it’s ok to have big emotions. It’s not ok when those big emotions hurt others.

2. Size of the problem

Sometimes big emotions get out of control because we misjudge the size of the problem. Our psychologists help put things in perspective. Big problems are global events that impact lots of people. Or events like dinosaurs escaping and killing everyone, evil dingos taking over the world, and other global events from my creative child’s brain. Spilling sauce at the dinner table then is a comparatively small sized problem. It’s not a catastrophe or extraordinary. It’s just a hassle. So, the response to that problem should be appropriate to the size of the problem. Running around screaming, hitting yourself, and throwing things across the room are not appropriate responses to the size of the problem of spilling sauce. So we fix the problem as best we can, and look at how to prevent it in future.

Another way of looking at the size of the problem is with a 3-2-1 scale. A level 1 problem I can solve myself. Level 2 problems need a bit of help from other people. A level 3 problem needs lots of people to help solve it.

3. Understanding the brain and big emotions

Understanding the brain with a psychologists help can make it easier to respond to big emotions.

To problem solve, we first need to be calm. That’s why lots of time is spent doing play or sensory activities. It allows time to regulate, adjust and be calm before doing tricky stuff. Why do we need to be calm? So the thinking part of our brain can take over.

Using a hand model of the brain, if your fingers are in a fist covering over your thumb, the thumb is like the emotional brain. It’s important for survival, to feel courage, fear and prompt fight/flight responses. The fingers coming over the thumb are like the thinking part of the brain. It’s the last part to develop and is needed for attention, logic, and thinking.

Children with autism are often quick to ‘flip the lid’ or have the fingers (thinking brain) lift up. Then they go straight to the emotional brain. They lose the ability to listen, talk through things or use logic. They are responding on emotion and instinct.

So, calming down first with sensory activities allows the thinking part of the brain to come back into play. Then you can talk about things and problem solve.

4. Executive functioning

Executive functioning includes being able to

  • have impulse control – you can think before you act
  • remember stuff – keeping track of their items or tasks to do and not always losing things
  • have emotional control – being able to regulate their emotions and not get frustrated by the little stuff
  • be flexible – to revise plans in the face of setbacks and go with the flow
  • be attentive – to have sustained attention on a task and not get distracted or need hassling and supervision by an adult
  • start tasks – being able to start a project without lots of procrastination
  • plan – being able to figure out the steps needed to complete a task
  • be organised – to keep track of materials and information
  • have time management – to estimate how much time a task will take and meet deadlines and not be late
  • have persistence at a goal- being able to set aside fun to work on a big project without being distracted
  • have metacognition – the ability to select strategies, evaluate how it’s going, and monitor progress.

All of these items are so important, yet often not explicitly taught.

5. Positive thinking

Anxiety and depression can be more common in children with autism. Our child will get headaches, tummy aches or other aches when they are actually feeling anxious. They can also be really critical and hard on themselves. They chastise themself for little mistakes (like spilling sauce) with big responses, saying:

  • “I’m the worst in the world”
  • “I’m the biggest idiot”
  • “I bet you wish I wasn’t born”

These harsh, negative and self-critical self-talk statements are so loud. But to support positive mental health, reduce anxiety, and increase problem solving skills we need to combat the negative talk.

Positive self-talk is an important skill. So, remind yourself that everyone makes mistakes but we’re still good people.

mama and baby capybara with big emotions that a psychologist can help with

Conclusion: big emotions and how psychologists can help

There are many skills, tips, strategies and models that can help with

  • big emotions and regulation
  • problem solving and thinking positively
  • executive functioning and understanding the brain

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