After the tragic shootings in Newtown last Friday, some people have speculated that the shooter had Aspergers syndrome and that, furthermore, Aspergers causes violence against others. This is not true, of course, and many others have done an excellent job of debunking this myth. What is true, however, is that children with Aspergers sometimes have a hard time processing and expressing emotion. Learning to recognize and express emotion appropriately is a key component of mental health; this task is doubly hard for people with Aspergers because of communications difficulties. Thus, this series attempts to help parents to guide their Aspergers children’s emotional development so that they can have the best chances of living healthy lives.
(The author is a life coach that works with the Aspergers community. You should, of course, seek therapy or other professional help for your child if you feel the situation warrants it.)
Proper expression of emotion starts by understanding what emotions you are feeling. This can be difficult for children with Aspergers syndrome for a couple of reasons:
- Difficulty with non-verbal language. Children with Aspergers don’t always recognize facial expressions or other non-verbal cues as to other people’s emotions. Similarly, they may not connect their own body language with particular emotions. They also may not know that they can express their emotions non-verbally.
- Difficulty recognizing bodily signals. Some children with Aspergers don’t recognize physical signals of particular emotions or understand what they mean.
- Lack of emotional vocabulary. Although children with Aspergers may have a very large vocabulary, they often have difficulty with the language of emotion. For example, they may not know the difference between “sad” and “depressed” and may use words that scare caretakers but don’t mean what they think they mean. Some children with Aspergers, for example, might use “suicidal” to mean “sad and depressed” because they know suicide is associated with depression but not actually feel at all suicidal.
Parents and teachers can help these children develop the ability to recognize emotion in themselves and others in several different ways.
Use Pictures and Videos
Many children with Aspergers are very visual. You can use pictures and videos to help them understand different emotions.
For example, you can look at photos from an event your child enjoyed and verbalize people’s emotions as you are looking. For example: “Look how happy Uncle Bob was in this picture. He had such a big smile!”
You can also use your children’s favorite videos to help them understand emotion. As your child is watching a video, you can verbalize the character’s emotions in the same way as above.
Once your child is used to hearing you verbalize emotion, you can help him or her begin to do so by playing games with pictures and videos. You can ask your child what people in a picture are feeling or ask him or her to show you the picture with a particular emotion. You can also put some video clips on a DVD and ask your child to identify the emotion in each clip. Make sure that as you practice emotions, you mention non-verbal cues such as pounding the table, jumping up in the air, or raising eyebrows as well as verbal cues and facial expressions.
Model Emotions for Your Child
One of the best ways to help children with Aspergers learn anything is to model it for them. When they can see you do something, it makes it easier for them to learn it themselves. When it comes to learning emotions, it can help them to see you verbalize your emotions, especially if you also mention bodily signals. For example, you might say, “My throat is starting to feel tight. I’d better count to ten because that tells me I’m getting angry!” Doing this helps your children see how to handle their emotions as well as helping them to understand the connection between bodily signals and emotions.
Talk With Your Child About His or Her Emotions
If your child expresses anger or fear, it’s important to do two things:
2. Find out what he or she means.
Children with Aspergers sometimes use stronger words for their emotions than they really feel or use metaphors that make sense to them but are frightening for you. If your child says he or she is “suicidal” or “murderous,” you may be terrified. Slow down, take a deep breath and say something like, “I hear you saying you want to kill yourself. Is that what you really mean?” It’s important to be neutral and non-judgmental as best as you can even if you may be scared so you can find out what’s really going on. By asking the question this way, you also give your child an explanation of what the words he or she is using mean.
Some children may find it easier to communicate what they really mean in pictures. You might want to keep a scrapbook of pictures your child enjoys that show different emotions or levels of emotion. That way, if your child is having trouble verbalizing his or her emotions, you can ask him or her to point to a picture that shows the correct emotion.
Learning to process and express emotion is an important developmental step for your child with Aspergers. These children sometimes act out because they are frustrated and don’t have the language to express what is bothering them. The more you can assist them in communicating emotion, the less likely they are to have meltdowns or other negative behaviors as a result of pent-up emotion.
Jack Ori is a motivational and communications coach who draws on his experiences as a person with Aspergers to assist children on the autism spectrum and their parents in communicating and understanding themselves and one another. Click here to request a consultation with Coach Jack.