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Your Asperger Child: Emotional Regulation

In order to handle our distress, it is necessary to control our emotions and not allow anxiety, depression, anger, and resistance to control us and prevent our use of logic and reason. If we cannot get past emotions, verbal strengths cannot be utilized. It is through our language that behavior control occurs. We use self-talk, as well as conversations with others, to make sense of what happens to us.

To understand emotions, we must distinguish between primary and secondary emotions. A primary emotion is what we feel first. The secondary emotion is what follows from it. For example, we feel anger (the secondary emotion), but the primary emotion that leads to this might be stress, a blocked need, or something else. If we understand the primary or underlying emotion we can figure out how to help. Thus, identifying these unmet emotional needs leads to a solution. For your child, anxiety is a major primary emotion that occurs for numerous reasons, but it almost always leads to a secondary emotion such as anger, upset, crying, or aggression. If we only respond to the secondary emotion, for example, the anger, we will miss the cause of the problem and no real solution will occur. If we respond to the anxiety, we will be able to address the real cause of the problem. Emotions must be understood and dealt with in a systematic manner, including the teaching of specific management skills.

Anxiety Management

Anxiety cannot be measured or observed except through its behavioral manifestation – either verbal or nonverbal. A child can cry, complain of a stomachache or headache, crawl under the table, become argumentative, call others unkind names, or in some other way show distress. They may all be manifestations of anxiety. To manage the anxiety, we divide it into a number of parts:

  1. You must recognize and identify the source of the anxiety.
  2. You must help your child identify the source of the anxiety if she is old enough to understand this concept.
  3. Make a list of numerous anxiety-producing situations, from easy ones to those that are more difficult (this is called anxiety mapping).
  4. Create an anxiety hierarchy – put the events in order from easy to hard.
  5. Prevent anxiety by external control – structuring the environment to make it predictable, consistent, and safe.
  6. Gradually shift anxiety control to your child by preparing her for anxiety-producing situations by discussing antecedents, settings, triggers, and actions to take. She acts comfortable in these situations, and you'll know anxiety has been reduced when anxiety is no longer seen. If not calm, she asks for help and a further discussion ensues.
  7. Further develop replacement behaviors and increasingly turn these over to your child to demonstrate. These alternative behaviors are the prosocial and appropriate complements to the inappropriate behaviors your child may currently demonstrate; for example, using words to discuss a problem instead of screaming.
  8. Develop, practice, and rehearse new behaviors prior to exposure to the real situation.
  9. Finally, implement new behaviors in the actual situations where anxiety occurs. Through your child's ability to demonstrate alternative behaviors and/or report being calm, we make the assumption that anxiety has been reduced.
  10. If she is old enough, teach your child increasing independence in anticipating and coping with anxiety in a variety of situations.
This is the process used to determine what situations are upsetting. They will always start at the concrete level, but will quickly need to be expanded to other similar situations. For example, you may need to help your child learn to temporarily stop a video game. But at some point, you will have to extend this learning to the much broader concept of "switching gears," which means to end something before you are ready to do so. Your child must learn to do this in a variety of settings, using many of the skills and concepts we have already discussed – resiliency, structure, preparation, replacement behaviors, and so forth.

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From Parenting Your Asperger Child by Alan Sohn, Ed.D., and Cathy Grayson, M.A. Copyright 2005. Used by arrangement with Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

If you'd like to buy this book, click here or on the book cover. Get a 15% discount with the coupon code FENPARENT.


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