Moods and autistic teenagers: what to expect
Ups and downs are a normal part of life for all young people.
But autistic teenagers can have more frequent or more severe mood changes than typically developing teenagers. And it can sometimes be hard to work out whether your autistic child’s behaviour is happening because of adolescence or autism.
Your child’s moods might seem random. Problem behaviour – like emotional upsets, violence or aggression – might start or get worse. Your child might seem more irritable or cranky, cry, scream, fidget or seem restless. Or your child might find it hard to adapt to change, or have trouble concentrating.
This often happens because autistic children and teenagers can find it hard to identify, manage and express their emotions.
Skills for handling emotions
Learning skills to handle emotions can help autistic teenagers with moods. Skills for handling emotions include:
- identifying and labelling emotions
- understanding why emotions happen
- managing emotions
- improving moods
- seeking help.
If you’re finding your child’s behaviour difficult to understand or if their moods and behaviour are beyond what you can safely control, speak to your GP. They can refer you to an appropriate health professional.
Identifying emotions as a step towards managing moods
Autistic children and teenagers can find it hard to identify emotions. They might have difficulty telling different emotions apart – for example, your child might feel all negative or unpleasant emotions as anger.
If autistic children and teenagers can learn to be more aware of their emotions, this can help them change and manage their moods. So the first step in handling emotions is identifying and naming emotions.
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 can also help your child recognise them. You could say, ‘You’re laughing and smiling – you must be happy’, or ‘I can see that you’re frustrated. It must be frustrating to not be able to play that bit right on the guitar’. Try starting with emotions like happiness, fear and anger. Then move on to more complicated emotions, like jealousy, sympathy or embarrassment. You could also try pointing out emotions in family members or characters in movies.
Drawing a picture of the body to show where people feel emotions can help some autistic teenagers. Another idea is for you and your child to look at pictures of faces that show different emotions.
A thermometer or ladder picture can help your child rate the level of an emotion they’re 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.
Understanding why emotions happen
The second step in handling emotions is understanding and accepting these emotions. If your child knows why they feel the way they do, it can help them understand and accept their emotions.
So it’s important for your child to understand that it’s normal to feel things and to experience a range of different emotions. You can help by talking with your child about emotions. For example, ‘It’s normal to feel all sorts of things, like happy, sad, excited, jealous. All these feelings are OK’.
You can also help your child understand why they feel the way they do by explaining how thoughts can lead to feelings. For example, you could say, ‘If a dog jumps up at you and you think it’s going to bite, you’ll feel scared. But if you think what a fun, playful dog it is, you might feel excited instead’.
Once your child can identify emotions and understand why they happen, the next step is helping your child learn strategies to manage emotions, especially unhelpful emotions.
Here’s an example of how you and your child could work on managing anger:
- Name this emotion to your child – for example, ‘You seem really angry’.
- Encourage your child to stop what they’re doing and take a deep breath. Then carry on breathing at a slow, steady rate.
- Explain to your child that this will help their body calm down.
To calm down from strong emotions, you child could also try simple muscle relaxation exercises, like progressively tensing and relaxing each muscle group in the body. You might say, ‘Doing these exercises will calm your body down. This will help your brain calm down and you’ll feel better’.
Another strategy is for your child to walk away from the object or situation that’s upsetting them, or find a quiet place to sit for a while.
You could turn a few of these suggestions into a visual support for your child to follow.
And it helps to practise all of these suggestions when your child is feeling calm.
Doing something enjoyable 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 your child can refer to it when they need to.
Here’s an example of a list of things your child might enjoy when they feel upset or sad:
- Listen to music.
- Have a nap.
- Play on the computer.
- Have time on their own.
- Read a book.
- Look at a photo album.
- Go for a walk or do another form of exercise.
It’s good if your child talks to you or a trusted adult about what’s upsetting them and why. Explain that you or another adult might be able to help. Together, you might be able to fix the problem and then your child will feel better