What Coping Strategies can we Teach Children with Autism?
Coping strategies are how we manage our thoughts, feelings and actions in order to tolerate, minimise and deal with stressful situations in life. For children with Autism, coping strategies are strategies “that can help one to return to or maintain a regulated state which can be seen as a wide range of different types of strategies ranging from sensory-based coping strategies (e.g., playdoh) to cognitive strategies (e.g., puzzles).”
Coping strategies are important tools to have in your toolbox when unexpected, ambiguous, or stressful circumstances arise, and your child needs extra guidance to calm down. But how do you identify what works best for your child and to match a strategy to their emotions?
Understanding Their Emotions
Before teaching coping strategies, it’s important for your child to be capable of identifying and labelling emotion. For individuals on the spectrum, finding a way to describe how they feel, label and understand complex emotions or feelings of multiple emotions concurrently can be tricky. One way to develop a mastery of emotions is to first teach your child the different types of emotions.
A simple and very helpful way to help your child learn about emotions and improve their ability to express and respond to emotions is by using everyday interactions.
Here are some ideas:
Label emotions in our natural environments: when you’re reading a book, watching a video or visiting friends with your child, you can point out emotions. For example, you can say, ‘Look! Daddy is laughing. He is happy!’.
Be responsive: respond to your child’s emotions – for example, ‘You’re smiling, you must be happy’. You can also try playing up your own emotional responses – for example, ‘I am SO excited! Give me high five!’.
You can also use tools to help make this process more visual:
Use emotion cards which have pictures of faces (real or cartoon) to show examples of what emotions is tied with which expression.
Play card games about facial expressions and ask your child to match the facial expressions with the label or description of the emotion.
Use social stories – social stories are a way of explaining social situations through an illustrated story or comic strip conversation that incorporates how your child feels and how others feel.
Teaching Emotional Self-Regulation
Now that your child can identify and label the different emotions, he is ready to move onto the next step – learning to regulate his emotions. Emotional self-regulation is the ability to adapt one’s behavior when engaged in situations that could provoke feelings of stress, anxiety, annoyance and frustration. A person with strong emotional regulation skills is able to:
Notice when they are getting emotionally charged
Consider consequences of their reaction
On the other hand, a person who lacks emotional regulation skills would:
Experience negative emotions for a longer period of time
Have a short temper and displays emotional outbursts
But fret not, all hope is not lost. Let’s dive right into the ways to teach your child emotional self-regulation:
1. Create an emotional levels chart
Create a visual aid that depicts the different levels of emotions that your child may feel together with them and allow them to label each level. For example, if you’re working on the feeling ‘Happy’, you can draw a happy face with your child and allow them to label it the way they feel is appropriate – ‘Very happy’, ‘Feeling good’, and etc. Do include a blank column titled “I feel this way when…” for your child to fill in.
2. Teach your child to assign the levels to certain situations
This can be done through prompting in two ways. One, you can brainstorm with your child various scenarios that would elicit specific emotions and write it down. For example, you can ask your child ‘When are you happy?’ or ‘What makes you happy?’. Two, you can do it the other way around and present scenarios to your child and asking them how they would feel in that particular situation. For example, you can ask your child how he would feel if she wasn’t allowed to go to the playground. Ensure that your child fills in the blank space beside the corresponding emotion.
3. Discuss the appropriate reactions to different scenarios
Once you have established various scenarios that your child feels are matched to a certain emotion, go through the chart and talk to them about which reaction is appropriate for a certain situation. For example, if your child labels not being able to go to the playground as ‘Very Angry’, you can first validate their feelings ‘I can understand why you would be very angry’ and go on to discuss why it should make you feel angry, instead of very angry. This way, your child is able to understand that there are varying levels of emotions and some situations can be placed under a less extreme level.
4. Instil coping strategies
Identify strategies that your child can use when they are feeling these various emotions and practice the strategies. One way you can do so is to present your child with proposed situations and engage in role-plays on how to use the strategies you have come up with together. You can also make use of a visual chart if your child learns better that way (i.e., having icons or images to represent that strategy).
With this last point, I believe you’re ready to help your child but remember, this process is ongoing. Try to revisit your chart options, offer choices to your child, and opportunities for them to practice, practice, practice. Your scaffolding and collaborative work will help your child to independently choose the right strategies they need when the situation calls for it. They are counting on you!
Written by Joey.
Gray, D. E. (1994). Coping with autism: Stresses and strategies. Sociology of Health & Illness, 16(3), 275-300.
Kiami, S. R., & Goodgold, S. (2017). Support needs and coping strategies as predictors of stress level among mothers of children with autism spectrum disorder. Autism research and treatment.
Online Grad. (2018). How to improve emotional self-regulation among children with autism and attention disorders. Retrieved from https://onlinegrad.pepperdine.edu/blog/emotional-self-regulation-children-autism/
Raising Children. (2020). Emotional development in autistic children. Retrieved from https://raisingchildren.net.au/autism/development/social-emotional-development/emotional-development-asd