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Teaching Control to a Child With Asperger's

Aloof. Awkward. Uninterested in others. Eccentric. Unable to make eye contact. All of these terms are often used to describe the social behavior of a child with Asperger's Syndrome, which is considered to be a "high functioning" autism spectrum disorder. Children with Asperger's Syndrome tend to have average or above-average intelligence and often appear to be "normal,” but they tend to struggle with social interactions. Moreover, they can have difficulty regulating their emotions, resulting in angry outbursts or complete withdrawal. If your child has Asperger’s Syndrome, teaching him to control his emotions can be challenging. As his parent, you can help him make serious strides in the right direction.

Understanding "Emotional Control"

When applied to a normally functioning child, the term “emotional control” might mean learning how to handle disappointment without throwing tantrums, how to communicate when he is upset, sad, or angry and how to interact appropriately with peers and adults in social settings. Parents of children with Asperger’s Syndrome hope that their children will meet similar milestones.

“Emotional control for a child with Asperger’s Syndrome is the ability to show age-appropriate expression, management and self-regulation of emotions so that the child can develop and maintain positive social relationships,” says Dr. Michael C. Selbst, director of Behavior Therapy Associates, with practices in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. According to Kidshealth website, children with Asperger’s Syndrome often have few facial expressions. Conversely, they find it hard to read other’s body language and, as a result, can be highly confrontational, resulting in the loss of emotional control. Early intervention is key: If a child is diagnosed and begins treatment when his brain is still developing, he will be more likely to benefit from social and emotional trainings and therapies.

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Recognizing the Signs

Teaching a child to control his emotions depends upon parents and educators recognizing the signs of an impending meltdown or outburst. Loss of control in a child with Asperger’s Syndrome closely mimics loss of a control in an average child – or an adult, for that matter.

“Signs and symptoms vary among children with Asperger’s Syndrome,” says Dr. Selbst, who in addition to being a licensed psychologist is also a certified school psychologist. “This may be similar or different to typical-developing children. Commonly, this includes clenching fists and teeth, change in tone of voice, rapid heart rate and breathing, increased physical agitation, and greater anxiety.”

In a child with Asperger’s, loss of emotional control can be set off by too much sensory or environmental stimulation, such as bright lights or too much noise, a disruption in an established routine, simple build-up of stress at school or home or even an insensitive remark made by an unsuspecting peer. Learning to recognize these signs – and the methods for handling them – are essential to teaching a child with Asperger’s Syndrome learn how to regulate his emotions.

Teaching Methods

If your Asperger’s child struggles with controlling his emotions, what can you do? It might be helpful if you first understand what not to do. If your child begins to lose control, you shouldn’t tell him to “stop it” or “calm down,” because this can only intensity the situation.

“Many adults try to change the child’s behavior and emotions ‘in the moment,’ before the child is ready and this exacerbates the situation,” says Dr. Selbst. “Too often, adults try to assert control rather than responding therapeutically.”

Teaching emotional control to a child with Asperger’s Syndrome involves a multi-pronged approach, he explains: "It is critical for parents and caring adults to validate the child’s feelings, connect with the child at their level, and begin working with the child when they are ready.” He suggests that parents teach the child to talk with a trusted adult, to calmly express their feelings, to engage in social problem solving and to learn replacement behaviors. “Behavioral rehearsal, or role-playing, is paramount,” he says.

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Ongoing Practice

Once your child is diagnosed, he will likely continue to participate in behavioral, emotional and educational therapies throughout his school years, and possibly even into adulthood. These treatments can include group social skills training, cognitive behavioral therapy, medication if necessary, physical therapy, speech therapy, and parent training and support, which can be a critical part of your child’s treatment plan. If you have a child with Asperger’s, there is no doubt that teaching him how to regulate and control his emotions will be challenging. For parents who are involved in this process, Dr. Selbst has the following advice: “Be patient and support him or her. Focus on teaching new behaviors before there is a problem; set aside lots of time to model and practice; provide ongoing behavior specific praise; and focus on what your child does well and let him or her know this!”

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