By Raising Children Network
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Teenaged boy curled up and looking sad
The changing moods teenagers experience might be more difficult 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 swings than typically developing teenagers.

It might sometimes be hard for you to work out if your child’s behaviour is because she’s a teenager or because she has ASD.

Your child’s moods might seem random. Problem behaviour – such as 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.

A lot of this behaviour 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

In this short video, parents talk about emotional development in their children with ASD. They say their kids 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 and therapies that have unlocked emotions in their child.
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 nine-year-old in emotional development and behaviour.

Identifying emotions

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 such as happiness, fear and anger. Then move on to more complicated feelings, such as 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 to 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

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 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.

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.

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 him to stop what he’s doing and take a deep breath. Then carry on breathing at a slow, steady rate.
  • Explain to him that this will help his body calm down.

Simple muscle relaxation exercises, such as 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 will feel better’.

Encourage your child to walk away from the object or situation that is upsetting her, or find a quiet place to sit for a little while.

You could turn a few of these suggestions into a visual schedule for your child to follow.

Doing something he 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 he can refer to it when he needs to.

Here’s an example of a list of things your child might enjoy when she 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.

Encourage your child to talk to you or a trusted adult about what is upsetting him and why. Explain that you might be able to help him fix the problem and then he’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.
Looking after yourself with healthy food, regular exercise and enough rest will keep you in good shape to care for your child with ASD. If your feelings about your child’s disability are sometimes overwhelming, it might help to know there are positive ways to manage them. Getting support from your local community can often be a big help too.
  • Last updated or reviewed 21-11-2013
  • Acknowledgements This article was developed using material from La Trobe University and Amaze and in collaboration with Diane Jacobs at La Trobe University.