Emotional regulation, or the ability to manage our feelings, is a crucial skill we generally develop as children that allows us to negotiate the world around us and build relationships with others.
This is not always easy! It takes lots of time, practice and modelling by adults for this skill to be learned, and even longer to master. I hope I might get there one day myself!
Add a diagnosis of autism into the equation, and it becomes an even harder skill to master. Studies have found that “autistic children have more trouble controlling their emotions than their typical peers do.”
When an autism diagnosis is made, one of the criteria for diagnosis is that there is an impairment of social communication skills, and this contributes hugely to the difficulties many autistic people face with managing their emotions. If you can’t interpret how another person is feeling, or label your own emotions, social interactions can easily go wrong. Actions can be misinterpreted and this can lead to lots of misunderstandings and upset, particularly when interacting with neurotypical peers.
This is something I am seeing more and more frequently with my own daughter, Sophie. She is hyper-social, if anything, and craves the company of other children. However, she finds it very challenging to keep up with the little social nuances of their interactions and games, especially if she is playing with other girls her age. She can’t understand how rapidly friendships can change from being ‘besties’ one day, to falling out the next, and back to being the best of pals the next day. This can cause Sophie to get very confused and upset, and has led to her shouting at the other girls or even lashing out physically on occasion.
It is as if it gives her emotional whiplash, and unfortunately it can have a really negative impact on her self-esteem. When she gets upset or angry in front of her peers, Sophie gets very down afterwards.
As a typical girl with autism, she wants nothing better than to blend in with everyone else and as she gets older, she is growing more and more self conscious and aware that her extreme emotional responses make her stand out from the other children her age. Shouting and stomping might not be unusual when children are of preschool age, but now that she is 8, Sophie knows that she needs to manage her feelings more appropriately.
We are working so hard to address this and to give Sophie the skills she needs to navigate the tricky world of female friendships, but it is very much an uphill battle. We have found some strategies that help us and I will share some of them in a later post.
From my own reading and research into this area it is clear that Sophie is not alone in her difficulties in this area.
“At every age, autistic girls score higher on measures of emotional reactivity than autistic boys do. They also score higher on measures of depressed mood, with the gender gap widening among girls older than 13 years.”
As someone who has had their own struggles with anxiety and low mood over the years, I am so conscious of the need to protect Sophie’s mental health, especially as she grows into a teenager. It is every bit as important as preserving her physical health.
We try our best to foster a culture of identifying and speaking about how we are feeling in our household. We are also working with Sophie to identify tools to help her when she is feeling sad, anxious or frustrated. Some days this helps. Other days, it doesn’t, and we all end the day feeling battered and bruised emotionally.
The main message we are trying to impart to our daughter is that all feelings are valid, all feelings are allowed. You don’t have to feel happy all the time. However, it is not acceptable to lash out when you are feeling sad or angry and hurt others.
Hopefully, this will help Sophie as she matures and the world will become a bit easier for her to negotiate in time.