Emotional Regulation & The Brain
The diagram below is a simplified explanation of how various sections of the brain are used and how that affects emotional regulation.
A lot of parents question why I advise avoiding saying no, or trying to reason with a child during a meltdown. This diagram helps make it more clear.
During a meltdown, the brain enters survival mode. It shuts down the thinking part of the brain and simply reacts to a threat .
This is a primal survival instinct, known as fight or flight. When faced with true danger, if the thinking part of our brain was functioning wed hesitate and/or try to use logic and it could cost us our lives.
During a meltdown, often what happens is that alarm goes off when theres not a true threat.
Its like having an alarm system on your home to protect you from burglars but its so sensitive that it goes off any time a bird lands on your roof.
better understand fight or flight here. )
This is why during times where the hindbrain is in control its important to remain calm and ensure safety until the forebrain is back in control.
You can and certainly should set boundaries, tell your child no and discipline them you just need to wait until the forebrain is in control if you want those things to actually benefit your child.
How To Calm A Child With Autism
There are certain calming do’s and don’ts that apply to most children with autism. These are based on the factors that autistic children have in common, specifically:
- Difficulty with understanding social norms and conventions
- Difficulty with following or using non-verbal communication
- Unawareness of others’ likely reactions to behaviors
- Sensory challenges that can get in the way of positive behaviors
- Lack of social motivation
A Temper Tantrum Is Not An Autism Meltdown
A temper tantrum usually occurs when a child is denied what they want to have or what they want to do.
Parents observe many tantrums during the terrible twos. This occurs when young children are developing problem-solving skills and beginning to assert their independence.
In fact, this terrible twos stage is typically experienced between 12 months through 4 years old!
When you look at why temper tantrums occur at this stage, it is important to consider typical development and why toddlers are so easily frustrated:
- Emerging desire to become independent, but limited motor skills and cognitive skills make it impossible to actually BE independent.
- Emerging, developing language skills make communicating wants/needs frustrating.
- The prefrontal cortex of the brain has not yet developed this is the brain center responsible for emotional regulation and social behavior so they do not have the ability to regulate!
- Toddlers are developing an understanding of their world, and its often anxiety-producing. This anxiety and lack of control often result in tantrums when it all gets to be too much to manage.
A hallmark of a tantrum is that the behavior will usually persist if the child gains attention for his behavior, but will subside when ignored.
When parents give in to tantrum outbursts, children are more likely to repeat the behavior the next time they are denied what they want or need.
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Techniques For Avoiding And Managing Meltdowns
Children with autism can have a tough time managing their behavior. Even high functioning children can “have a meltdown” in situations that would be only mildly challenging to a typical peer.
Children with more severe symptoms can get very upset on a daily basis. Meltdowns and anxiety can make it very hard to participate in typical activities or, in some extreme cases, to even leave the house.
It’s not always easy to calm a child with autism, but there are techniques that can often be successful. Some require a bit of extra equipment that offers sensory comfort. Some of these items can be used in settings like school or community venues. If they work well, they’re worth their weight in gold.
Verywell / Brianna Gilmartin
Give Them Toys That Relieve Stress And Anxiety Such As Fidget Toys
Giving an anxious child something to redirect and focus their attention on can help prevent their anxiety from escalating into an angry outburst. These little hand toys or fidget toys can be fun to play with and will occupy their attention.
Small toys that can be held and squeezed, squished, stretched or spun can bring on an instant sense of calmness. There are a variety of these popular toys on the market. Some offer tactile stimulation or come in fun, glittery colors.
They include squeezable stress balls, colorful and glittery putties, moldable bubble foams, stretchy whimsical objects like a mouse perched atop a slice of cheese, bristle brushes, long sets of clicking links and tabletop spinners.
Helping your child to manage anger in stressful situations is never an easy task. Sometimes the best thing that you can do is seek help and advice from experts that care. You can reach out to Lexington Services today for any questions you might have or to enroll them in one of our excellent programs. Our staff can help children learn to manage anger constructively, while guiding them through activities and exercises that improve their future. Contact Lexington Services today to find out more information.
For more insights from Lexington Services, .
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What Causes Distressed Behaviour
Behaviour has a function, and there could be a number of reasons for it. These may include difficulty in processing information, unstructured time,sensory differences, achange in routine, transition between activities, or physical reasons like feeling unwell, tired or hungry. Not being able to communicate these difficulties can lead toanxiety, anger and frustration, and then to an outburst of distressed behaviour.
The Study Of Aggression In Autism
Aggression in autistic children is both widespread and well documented. A study in Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders showed that 25% of autistic kids display aggressive behavior, including but not limited to:
- Hitting others.
- Destroying property.
- Melting down .
The researchers noted that aggression was more common among children with mild autism symptoms and low intelligence quotients. Additionally, children who showed more severe rates of anger also had mood and anxiety disorders, and they struggled with getting consistent sleep and paying attention.
Another study, this one published in the Autism journal, looked at potential causes behind aggressive behavior in undergraduate students who were not on the autism spectrum. Factors like social anxiety and the tendency to spend a lot of time dwelling on negative, hostile emotions were the most reliable predictors of verbal and physical aggression.
In autism, there is a condition known as cognitive perseveration, where a person tends to think or talk about the same subjects repetitively. People with autism who have cognitive perseveration have a higher chance of dwelling on their negative feelings and hostility.
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In The Midst Of The Crisis
But what if you, like so many of us, miss the early warning signs, and your child appears alarmingly close to damaging your home or hurting someone or himself?
One thing is certain, theres no way to rationally work through a behavioral crisis in the midst of one. Safety becomes the priority, and this may mean calling 911. However, here are some guidelines that can help keep everyone safe.
Looking beyond the crisis
Abuse Masquerading As Play: Where To Draw The Line
Parents should not tolerate physical or verbal abuse masquerading as play. Many parents have good instincts when it comes to recognizing the difference between normal roughhousing and physical aggression. These parents can also recognize the difference between playful teasing and verbal abuse. For these parents, my advice is simple: trust your instincts. If it doesnt feel right to you, dont let them do it.
Remember, our job as parents is to teach our kids which behaviors are acceptable and which are not. Kids are excessive and require adults to set limits on both the intensity and frequency of physical roughhousing or verbal teasing.
For parents who are uncertain about the threshold between roughhousing and violence, below are some guidelines for when to step in. Stop an activity immediately whenever any of the following occurs:
- One child wants it to stop, and the other child doesnt stop.
- Someone gets hurt, even if both parties want it to continue.
- The roughhousing is in retaliation for something.
- The roughhousing is designed to dominate a younger or smaller child.
- Its done at the wrong time or in the wrong place.
And understand that were not judging kids by their motives, were judging them by their actions. Therefore, if one kid says, I didnt mean to hurt my brother or sister, thats irrelevant to us as parents. You just need to say:
You did hurt your brother, and it has to stop.
Hold them accountable and give them consequences for these behaviors.
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Answer Their Questions But Ignore Targeted Aggression
If your child asks a question during a meltdown, even if its asked inappropriately or rudely, provide a calm and concise answer.
However, ignore any aggressive statements they make towards you. For example, if your child yells Youre the worst mommy in the world!, do not respond or react.
Keep talking to a minimum, using short responses. Answer their questions and nothing more.
If your child regularly defaults to aggressive communication when theyre angry, this is a great communication printable to try : Assertive vs Aggressive Communication
My Hammer Is Bigger Than Yours
When your child was two, if he threw himself on the floor kicking and screaming, you could just carry him out of the store. You were able to exert physical control. But over the years, tantrums can escalate if your child doesnt learn other skills. By the time hes a teenager, theres no way you can pick him up. And now, you may be afraid hes the one whos going to take physical control of the situation.
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Walk Away And Get To A Safe Place
Sometimes the mere presence of another person sets off the person with autism. If you can safely leave the person where he is, do so. Make sure you have access to a phone so you can call for help if needed. Go to a bathroom or bedroom where you can lock the door but still hear what is going on. Bring a book about non-violent crisis intervention and read it. Listen for signs of calming. Do not come out immediately, but after five minutes of calm, step out and see what the situation is.
If all is well, go about your business as if nothing unusual had happened. This is not the time for talking about what happened, for setting consequences, for yelling at the person, or anything else but continued calming. When the person is truly calm you can discuss how the incident could have been avoided – but not now. It is very important for you to remain calm even if you are scared to death inside. There will be time for falling apart later.
Techniques For Calming An Upset Child
While it’s great to simply avoid getting upset, real-life can make it impossible. When that happens, these tips for calming may help:
- Recognize signs. Very often, children with autism show signs of distress before they “meltdown” or become very upset. Check to see if your child seems frustrated, angry, anxious, or just over-excited. If she can communicate effectively, she may be able to simply tell you what you need to know.
- Look for environmental issues that could be causing your child’s discomfort. If it’s easy to do so, resolve any problems. For example, close a door, turn off a light, turn down music, etc.
- Leave the space. Often, it’s possible to simply leave the situation for a period of time, allowing your child time and space to calm down. Just walk out the door with your child, staying calm and ensuring their safety.
- Have a “bag of tricks” handy to share with your child. Chewy or sensory toys, favorite books or videos can all defuse a potentially difficult situation. While it’s never ideal to use TV as a babysitter, there are situations in which a favorite video on a smartphone can be a lifesaver.
- Travel with a weighted vest or blanket. If your child does well with these calming tools, bring an extra in the car at all times. If you don’t have weighted items, you might want to consider rolling your child up in a blanket like a burrito. For some autistic children, the pressure can be very calming.
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What Causes Autistic People To Become Aggressive
The researchers in the Autism journal were clear that while anger is a common factor in autism, driving people to harm themselves and their caregivers, they found no evidence to suggest that autism itself leads to intentionally or maliciously violent behavior.
With that being said, the fact that autistic individuals do compulsively dwell on certain topics and feelings for extended periods of time, and that people who dwell on hostile emotions may be more inclined toward aggressive behavior, the researchers noted that the relationship between anxiety, anger rumination, and aggression might lead to violent behavior in some people with autism.
Despite the overlap between the two, aggression is not a symptom of autism spectrum disorder, and not all people who have ASD are aggressive. The connections that lead to aggressive behavior in autistic individuals are not fully understood.
Some research has suggested biological factors related to different brain structures in people who have autism may contribute. For example, in 2017, Brigham Young University reported that MRI scans of two groups of autistic individuals found that the group that displayed significant levels of aggression had lower brain stem volumes. Researchers concluded that there is thus a core, autonomic connection between autism and aggressive behaviors.
Let Your Child Express Anger In A Safe Place
When rage is unavoidable, its important to let the child safely vent their feelings in a place where they wont hurt themselves or anyone else. You can try redirecting their anger by offering them a soft object such as a pillow to scream into or to use as a punching bag. After a while, they will become tired and begin to calm down. Another way to let your child express themselves is to encourage them to write their feelings down in a journal or talk about whats bothering them.
They could also try expressing their emotions through art, such as writing a poem or drawing a picture. By teaching your child ways to express themselves, you are helping them learn how to manage anger more constructively.
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Focus On Your Child Not Staring Bystanders
Meltdowns for any child can get noisy, but they tend to go to a whole other level of loud when its a child with autism.
These outbursts can feel embarrassing to parents when were in public and everyone is staring at us.
We feel the judgment from some saying, Id never let my kid act like that.
Or worse, we feel like our deepest fears are validated: People think were failing at this whole parenting thing.
Next time you find yourself in this public display of chaos, ignore the judgmental looks, and quiet down that fearful inner voice saying youre not enough. Remember that the person who is struggling and needs your support the most is your child.
Dealing With Aggressive Outbursts From Autistic Children And Teenagers
You probably cant prevent every outburst from your autistic child. So its important for you to have some strategies to deal with the aggressive behaviour when it happens.
Stay calm This is the first and most important thing. Most aggressive outbursts happen because your child has feelings building up and cant communicate them. By managing your own feelings and staying calm and quiet, you wont add your emotions to the mix.
Limit what you say During an outburst your child will be feeling very stressed. Its hard to process what someone else is saying when youre feeling stressed, and this is especially true for autistic children, who can have trouble understanding language.
So it can help if you dont say too much. Aim for short phrases or even just a couple of words for example, Sit down rather than Lachlan, come over here and sit down.
Move your child to a safer place For everyones safety, make sure your child isnt close to anything that could be harmful for example, shelves that could fall over or glass objects. A quiet enclosed space outside might be an option. You might also need to get other people to move out of the way for safety.
Consider visual cues Visual cues can help in these situations. For example, you might have a picture of a quiet place in your home that your child can go to.
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