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ASD Emotional Regulation

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Herman & Associates

Autistic Spectrum Disorders: Emotional Regulation

This section contains anecdotal information collected through our clinical experience in working with many individuals on the Autistic Spectrum.  This is not research based scientific evidence.  Herman & Associates offers these observations only as points for discussion and as possible research topics in the future. 

Emotions - People with ASD are generally more prone to anxiety, specifically around social contact. This can result in more insistence on routines and more rigid thought processes. There is also a higher prevalence of depression due to resulting social deficits.

Individual's with high functioning ASDs are typically aware of their social awkwardness. They may desire friendships, but struggle to understand why they are rejected by others. They commonly realize that they need help, but they are often unable to utilize techniques that facilitate social interactions.  This tends to increase social anxiety resulting in an increasingly greater number of social errors.  For instance, adult males with ASD frequently become overwhelmed with feelings (e.g., anxiety, sexual tension, fear) when talking with attractive women.  While this is a common experience for most people, individuals with ASD struggle more than most because of the intensity of their emotions and their decreased ability to regulate emotions.

Sensory Sensitivity leading to problems with emotional regulation - One of the primary issues confronting many individuals with an ASD from birth forward is the regulation of sensory sensitivity.  It is nearly impossible for anyone to process information when one or more senses are being bombarded by stimuli.  Consequently, a primary need of many individuals with ASD is sensory control, or the regulation of sensory stimulation.  If one cannot regulate sensory control internally, it must be accomplished externally.  This is why many individuals with ASD prefer isolation where they can monitor their sensory input.  When sensory stimulation is overwhelming, we all become cranky and irritable (e.g., lose emotional regulation), moving quickly to reduce the sensory input so we can be rational human beings again.  Individuals with ASD are commonly overwhelmed emotionally when they are besieged by sensory information.  Lacking general ability to read nonverbal social cues and social skills, they may inadvertently be offensive to others in their need to detach and/or control their environment due to too much sensory input.  They often do not mean to be offensive, but they do intend to gain quick control over their environment, which can produce additional social problems.

Trouble with empathy and empathic responses - Individuals with an ASD typically have a degree of egocentrism and are more concerned with their own interests, thoughts, and feelings than with other people's concerns.  Their limited interest in others combined with their struggle to read nonverbal cues often interferes with empathic responses to others.  While most individuals with high functioning ASDs have minimal interest in others, they often have more interest than their social skills demonstrate.  This can lead to frustration and loneliness.

Awareness of their condition may lead to depression - Most individuals with high functioning ASD have some awareness of their social limitations.  Although introspection and self-awareness are typically relative weaknesses within their personality profile, many individuals with high functioning ASD occasionally become aware of their isolation and sadness related to their disconnection from others.  We generally have noted that the more high functioning the client the more self-awareness they posses and the more vulnerable they are to depression.  Their greater awareness allows them to become more cognizant of their isolation.  At face value more self-awareness may seem disadvantageous; however, while greater self-awareness may lead to depression, their depression may be cause for discomfort and therefore a catalyst for change. 

Transition problems - Due to their sensory sensitivity, cognitive rigidity, and inability to predict events in a quickly changing environment, individuals with ASD often have difficulty with transitions.  They are easily overwhelmed and flooded with unexpected sensory input.  This typically causes an immediate emotional response displaying their discomfort (e.g., anxiety, anger, pain) at the seemingly sudden and unpredictable change in events.  Transitions are best when the individual with ASD is given ample notice of the change, a reminder that they have seen this type of environment before, and emotional support and time to adjust to the change.

Trouble predicting events and outcomes related to risk-taking behaviors - Because individuals with ASD are typically somewhat self-centered and poor at reading social cues, they have a diminished capacity for predicting changes in their immediate environment.  They are commonly surprised by changes in their environment and adjust slowly (at best) to transitions.  Many individuals with ASD slowly gravitate toward safe and protected environments with minimal changes and risk (e.g., hibernating with their gaming friends, computers, videogames, or specific area of high interest).  When individuals with ASD due take social risks, they are vulnerable to failure because their risks may be either tangential to the real problem, overly scripted (e.g., memorized from what they saw in a movie or TV show), the result of impulsive behavior or limited understanding of the social context, or in some other way not tailored to the exact social situation.  Some individuals with ASD continually take risks because they are eager to please others.  However, they posses inadequate insight into themselves, their own motives or those of others, and struggle to learn from their mistakes.  They are easily manipulated by bullies to fail in a social setting and endure the ridicule of their peers.  This can be a humiliating process that leaves them open to feeling shamed and inadequate.  It is easy to imagine how these social outcomes would contribute to feelings of inadequacy, social anxiety, greater isolation, and depression.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) symptoms - Most clients with ASD have some degree of OCD behaviors.  Anxiety is certainly a component of ASD and some individuals with ASD have been misdiagnosed with OCD by well-meaning professionals.  Individuals with ASD are commonly anxious, may participate in behavioral rituals, have restricted interests, and display perseveration. 



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