It’s normal for teenagers to experience mood changes, but moods might be harder to manage for your child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Practical strategies to identify and control feelings can help your child with this part of emotional development.
Moods and autism spectrum disorder: what to expect
Ups and downs are a normal part of life for all young people. But teenagers with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can have more frequent or more severe mood changes than typically developing teenagers.
It might sometimes be hard for you to work out whether your child’s behaviour is happening because she’s a teenager or because she has ASD.
Your child’s moods might seem random. Problem behaviour – like tantrums, violence or aggression – might start or get worse. Your child might get cranky, cry, scream, fidget or giggle a lot. Or he might find it hard to adapt to change, or have trouble concentrating.
This behaviour often happens because children with ASD can find it hard to:
- identify which emotion they’re feeling
- manage and control their emotions
- express those emotions.
Video Emotional development: teenagers with autism spectrum disorder
In this short video, parents talk about emotional development in their children and teenagers with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). They say their children often struggle to understand or talk about emotions. They’re the same as their peers physically, but emotionally and socially they lag. Parents talk about using picture boards to help children recognise emotions. They also describe therapies that have unlocked emotions in their children.
Emotional development happens according to your child’s cognitive or developmental age rather than her age in years. For example, your child might be 13 but be more like a 9-year-old in emotional development and behaviour.
Identifying emotions as a step towards managing moods
Being more aware of his emotions will help your child change and control them.
To help your child identify different emotions, you could create a Social Story™ about a particular emotion.
Here’s an example of a Social Story™ about happiness:
- When something good happens to me, I feel happy.
- Some things that make me happy are playing computer games and swimming.
- When I feel happy, I smile and laugh.
Pointing out your child’s emotions to her can also help her recognise them. You could say, ‘You’re laughing and smiling – you must be happy’. Try starting with emotions like happiness, fear and anger. Then move on to more complicated feelings, like jealousy, sympathy or embarrassment.
You could draw a picture of the body to show where people feel emotions. Another idea is to use pictures of faces that show different emotions. This can help your child recognise them.
A thermometer or ladder picture can help your child rate the level of an emotion he’s feeling. Put numbers next to each step of the thermometer or ladder.
Here’s how it might work with anger on a scale of 1-5:
- 1 is not angry, everything is OK.
- 2 is a little angry – for example, when I forget to take my homework to school.
- 3 is moderately angry – for example, when somebody is mean and plays a joke on me.
- 4 is very angry – for example, when someone pushes me over on purpose.
- 5 is extremely angry, I’m going to explode like a volcano – for example, when someone deliberately rips up my work.
If you’re finding your child’s behaviour difficult to understand or if your child’s moods and behaviour are beyond what you can safely control, speak to your GP, who can refer you to the appropriate professional.
Controlling emotions to help with moods
Controlling emotions might mean sticking with a particular emotion (for example, staying happy), changing an unhelpful emotion, or moving from one emotion to another.
Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can find this hard because they don’t always understand that an emotion is the result of something that happens to them. They can also have trouble telling different emotions apart. For example, your child might see all negative or unpleasant emotions as fear.
Understanding why emotions happen
The first step to controlling emotions is to understand why they happen and what they relate to. So your child needs to understand that emotions themselves are not bad or a problem. It’s when emotional responses are out of sync with an event or when they stay at a high level for too long that they can cause problems.
Controlling emotions: tips
Here are some things you can do to help your child control her emotions.
If your child seems angry or frightened, try these steps:
- Name this emotion to your child – for example, ‘You seem really angry’.
- Encourage your child to stop what he’s doing and take a deep breath. Then carry on breathing at a slow, steady rate.
- Explain to your child that this will help her body calm down.
Simple muscle relaxation exercises, like progressively tensing and relaxing each muscle group in the body, can also help your child calm down. You might say, ‘Doing these exercises will calm your body down. This will then help your brain calm down and you’ll feel better’.
Encourage your child to walk away from the object or situation that’s upsetting him, or find a quiet place to sit for a little while.
You could turn a few of these suggestions into a visual support for your child to follow.
Improving mood: tips
Doing something she enjoys might improve your child’s mood. You could make a visual list with pictures of the activities your child enjoys. Put the list up somewhere so that she can refer to it when she needs to.
Here’s an example of a list of things your child might enjoy when he feels upset or sad:
- Listen to music.
- Have a nap.
- Play on the computer.
- Have time on my own.
- Read a book.
- Look at my photo album.
Supporting your child
Encourage your child to talk to you or a trusted adult about what is upsetting her and why. Explain that you might be able to help her fix the problem and then she’ll feel better.
You can work on your child’s difficult or challenging behaviour by changing either the behaviour’s triggers or the ‘rewards’ your child gets from the behaviour.
Video Adolescence and autism spectrum disorder
In this short video, parents and experts talk about the challenges of adolescence for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Teenagers with ASD go through normal emotional and physical changes, although there can sometimes be a gap between their physical ages and their emotional ages. One mother says her son’s ASD helped him avoid some common challenges of adolescence.