Beautiful Minds Blog
Life is full of emotions. We can’t help but feel angry, sad, and anxious at times. However, learning to handle our emotions is an important skill that can be difficult for a child with autism to learn.
Here are some ways to help your child on the spectrum understand and respond to their feelings and emotions.
- Identify Your Feelings – Teach child on the spectrum to recognize when they have a specific feeling. Whether that feeling is happy, sad, or angry the first step in coping with a feeling is identifying it. Help your child with autism by discussing emotions when they occur. It is also recommended that you role play through specific emotions so that your child knows how to react when they surface.
- Cope with Intense Feelings– Help your child on the spectrum cope with intense feelings by creating coping strategies. Have a quiet place for your child to take a break when they get angry or feel sad. Give your child with autism the proper tools, and teach him/her how, and when to use them. These tools help release energy in a positive way. Encourage your child to use words or write about their feelings. Establish a phrase that your child can use to remove themselves from stressful or upsetting situations.
- Encourage Your Child to Recognize Other People’s Feelings – Learning to empathize with other people and respond appropriately to another person’s feelings, is an important skill for building relationships. Show your child pictures, drawings or role play situations to discuss the words, body language, and experiences that indicate how a person is feeling. Read stories where characters experience events that are happy, sad, surprising, or frustrating. Discuss why the characters felt the way they did and what they said or did to indicate their feelings.
- Respond to Other People’s Feelings – Not only is it important for your child on the spectrum to identify other people’s feelings, it is also important for them to learn how to respond when someone is angry, sad, or excited. Teach your child on the spectrum the appropriate ways to respond through role play and reviewing past events. Discuss how different people feel, how their body language and words show their feelings, and the best response for the situation.
Children with autism often struggle not only with understanding their feelings, but also relating to other people’s feelings. These skills are critical for personal well-being and building relationships.
Sometimes behavior problems arise in children that can be difficult for many parents to deal with. When this happens, it is always good to know which reinforcement strategies work best on your kids.
Since different situations call for different reinforcers, it is always good to first assess the situation and then figure out which of the above strategies to put into play in order to help your child decrease behavior problems. Many times parents turn to primary reinforcers, which are snacks or favorite foods. Although this is a good way to start reinforcing behavioral changes, it is important to find different things your child is interested in so that increased amounts of junk food or snacks are not introduced into your child’s diet, which can create other problems down the line. Take the time to find out what types of secondary or positive reinforcers your child likes.
What are their hobbies? Are there specific games or toys they like to play with, etc. Also pay attention to things that may irritate your child and cause negative behaviors to come out; and try to either avoid these items or situations, or work with your child to help them become acclimated to them. Once you find reinforcers that work, make sure they are ONLY available to your child when working with them on behavior modification techniques. Allowing your children to have access to reinforcers all the time decreases the effects of the reinforcer until it no longer serves its purpose. By keeping it locked away and out of site, the reinforcer becomes a powerful tool for a parent.
Another great strategy to use to get your child to participate in activities they are not fond of, such as cleaning up, homework, therapy, etc., is it use what professionals call the Premack Principle. Simply stated the Premack Principle is a reinforcement strategy that places a preferred activity after a non-preferred activity. For example,” first you finish your homework and then we can play video games”. By enforcing this strategy in your home, your child learns that once they are finished doing what they have to do, they get to do something they like.
There are several ways to make reinforcers applicable and different ways will work for different people. By using various methods that you find helpful, you will be able to start working with your child on ways to modify their behavior and increase their tolerance for less preferred activities.
First and foremost, it’s important to rule out any medical drivers or food allergies that could be causing a dislike of particular flavors or food groups. Your child on the spectrum may avoid particular foods because they upset their stomachs.
However, they may not be able to describe or identify this connection. Consult your pediatrician to investigate possible allergies or complicating medical conditions before starting any new food regime.
Once you confirm that medical issues aren’t behind your child’s picky eating, you should keep one basic rule in mind: Avoid making food a source of conflict within your family.
It is very common for picky eating to lead to dinner table arguments and battles of will between children and parents. Arguing or trying to force a child to eat usually makes the situation worse. Instead, take a moment to think creatively and try to explore the possible causes behind your child’s dislike of new or particular foods.
Many children with autism dislike trying new things. If your child with autism seems afraid or wary of new foods, think of ways to manage this anxiety.
Instead of asking your child to taste the new food outright, try to look at the new food together. From there, you could suggest that the two of you smell it and/or touch it. These are great opportunities for playing games and having fun with food.
Sometimes it helps to have your child mix the new food with a familiar and preferred food for this first taste. We’ve seen this gradual approach decrease anxiety about new foods by increasing familiarity.
It’s also important to give your child as many choices as possible so they can feel in control of their meals. You can present a wide array of food options at mealtime, and then invite your child to choose three foods to put on his plate. This approach will help your child with autism know that it’s okay to have preferences around food and that variety is important.
Encouraging choice and control within a defined window can help avoid arguments, tears and meltdowns at the dinner table. At the same time, it encourages a more varied and well-formed diet. Some kids on the autism spectrum have sensory difficulties with food that go beyond flavor. For example, a child may dislike the way a cherry tomato turns from solid to squishy in her mouth, though she likes the flavor. It can be difficult for children to separate out that good taste from the disturbing texture.
One pitfall we’ve see many parents succumbing to is the reward system. Yes, the age-old “if you eat your broccoli, you can have ice cream.” Though this trick may work as a quick fix, it won’t produce the desired results in the long run. Your child with autism may choke down the broccoli to get the reward, but this plan is not likely to increase his preference for eating broccoli. Instead, we want your kids to enjoy new foods and form more flexible, healthy eating habits. So it’s important to help him find solutions. Most importantly, the more fun, the better!
Bowl with watermelons. Make faces on pizzas with vegetables or pepperoni. Paint with pasta sauce. Experiment with how ingredients change color or consistency when mixed together. Each of these activities will help a child become more comfortable around new and different foods, create opportunities for trying new tastes and keep food discussions positive.
Make mealtime an opportunity for flexibility, education, choices and – most of all – fun. This is one time that it’s okay to play with your food!