Understanding emotions on the spectrum
Updated: Jul 30, 2022
Many individuals use words to describe their emotions; but, for people with autism, interpreting and expressing emotions using words can at times be difficult. They may have a hard time detecting, reacting to, and controlling powerful emotions including rage, excitement, and worry.
People on the autism may have difficulty recognising and sometimes processing emotions. The majority of neurotypical people can recognise others emotions based on cues such as voice tone, body language, and facial expression. People who are neurodivergent may have trouble detecting these particular attributes.
It is essential to consider the emotional characteristics of people who are neurodiverse in order to build inclusion, awareness and understanding. People on the spectrum may have trouble controlling their emotions, which may cause a meltdown or shutdown. This is because their brains are wired differently, and this may be consistent with the way they interact with the
world. According to research from Autism UK, this occurs as a response to the needs of their body to release tension and emotions in order to prevent overwhelm. As a family member or a friend, here are some things you can do to support someone with ASD who may experience this.
Anticipating a meltdown
Many autistic people will show signs of distress before having a meltdown, which is sometimes referred to as the “rumble stage”. They may start to exhibit signs of anxiety such as pacing, seek reassurance through repetitive questioning or physical signs such as rocking or becoming very
still. At this stage, there may still be a chance to prevent a meltdown. Strategies to consider include distraction, diversion, helping the person use calming strategies such as fiddle toys or listening to music, removing any potential triggers, and staying calm yourself.
What to do
• Give them some time - it can take a while to recover from information or sensory overload.
• Ask them if they are okay and if there is anything that they may need.
• Try to create a quiet, safe space as best you can. This can be done by reducing sensory stimuli which could include turning music or TV off, dimming bright lights and providing a weighted/pressured blanket.
Identifying potential triggers
If your family member or the person you support has meltdowns, identify what is overwhelming for them. Track this by completing a diary. Ensure that you record what happened before, during and after each meltdown. This could give you valuable information regarding times, places, or when something particular has happened. You may be able to see some patterns
from this, which can allow you to identify potential triggers.
Once you have clarity on idea what may be causing a meltdown, think about ways you might reduce that trigger. Every person is unique, but sensory changes, disruptions in routine, and communication challenges can often be factors that can contribute.
If this is happening consistently to you or to someone you know, an Occupational Therapist would be a great person to help. They support clients in areas such as sensory and emotional regulation. They can provide individualised strategies to help alleviate and prevent sensory
overload and dysregulation. We must try our best to build meaningful relationships with people on the autism spectrum. Being respectful, patient, calm, and not being deterred by symptoms autistic people display is essential when interacting with them. By better understanding the emotional side of autism we can create supportive environments where everyone can be included and thrive.