Autistic children have the same emotions we all do…let’s nurture them

Why Haven’t They Done That Yet?

In my readings about autism and educational methods I realized something. We tell autistic kids “Oh, you can’t do X” on any number of topics simply because they are autistic. Yet, we never teach them how. We never even check and see if they can do X or not. We just assume they cannot and impose our assumptions.

The assumption I am frustrated with right now is the dogma that autistic individuals do not feel emotion the same was as everyone else. And more to the point, that they do not necessarily feel the same emotions the same way as everyone else. I do not believe this for one second. My brother was always more emotionally expressive than either my father or myself are.

If we choose to use the typical diagrams that describe how we are supposed to act to how we are supposed to feel, I do it all wrong. I am not an emotionally stunted individual, but I do not wear them on my sleeve. I do not tirade when angry. I am not always silly when I am happy. I do not spend a lot of time smiling. But, I know I do feel the emotional states that those who outwardly dramatize their feelings experience. I just report them differently.

Caption: I often feel like people perceive me this way!

A missing toolbox

My point in the above is that we constantly tell autistic chidden (and adults) that their emotional world is wrong. We tell them that they are broken and they need to at least act like everyone else because that is somehow “right” or “correct”. We demand they feel how we want them to; often because we are not comfortable with others feeling differently than ourselves. What should be happening is that we need to be specifically helping autistic children understand and work with their emotions. In fact, we need to do this with all children, but I will focus on autistic children as they are my future students.

Despite the public perception, what I see when I see autistic individuals are very emotional people. In fact, I would say in every way other than the verbal expression of their internal state, they have a much more intimate appreciation of their emotional state than many of us do. It is not that autistic people wear their emotions on their sleeves, they don’t-but their actions are much more closely linked to their affective state than a great many people.

As a concrete example, my late brother was very giggly, smiley, puckish, mischievous and silly when happy, very weepy and prone to cry when sad, and get out of his way if he was frustrated or angry. Interestingly, it was not just the angry states that left Kyle in a state where he could not function, when he was happy and puckish his life was just as disrupted as when he was angry or sad. He felt his emotions quite acutely, but he did not have the tools necessary to work within his emotions in day to day life.

In my short time teaching I have found that it is actually quite easy to connect emotionally with the autistic kids I have worked with. They are keen to share, so long as there is no manipulation intended on my part and that I am patient with them as they work through their issues. I find if I take the time to ask the right questions and listen closely to the answers, I can actually serve as a sort of sounding board or therapist that can help my autistic students understand their emotions and not be controlled by them.

A few examples

The following is a conversation I had with a 1st grade student (“Steven”) with autism after I stopped him from trying to tear the room apart in a rage:

(For background I took away a list he was compiling because he was refusing to do any work for one of the aides)
Me: “Mr. Steven, why is Mr. Steven running around the room like a wild man?”
Me: “Mr. Steven, why is Steven running around the room like a wild man?”
(10-15 seconds of silence as Steven stares at me and thinks, breathing hard, clearly enraged at something)
S: “Steve is very angry right now! ARRRRRRRRRRRRR!”
Me: “Why is Steven angry right now?”
S: “Because Mr. Ryan is a butthead! ARRRRRRRRRRRRR!”
Me: “Why is Mr. Steven angry at Mr. Ryan?”
S: “Because Mr. Ryan is a butthead”
Me: “Why is Mr. Ryan a butthead, Mr. Steven?”
S: “Mr. Ryan is a butthead. Mr. Ryan took Steve’s list of Lego villains and now who is going to stop the Batman?”
Me: “Why did Mr. Ryan take Steve’s list?”
S: “Because Mr. Ryan is a butthead!”

At this point Steven looked at me, growled in an exasperated manner, walked calmly across the room, and asked the main teacher in the class if he could please have his list of Lego villains back. Owing to the fact he told me exactly why he was angry at me and he was no longer rampaging around the class, I signaled to the teacher where they were so she could give Steven his list. She agreed to give him his list if he did 10 minutes of work. He did it readily. He was happy the rest of the day, except with me, he was angry with me the rest of the day. But it did not spill over into the rest of his dealings with the class.

My point with this story is not to point out that this kid thought I was a butthead. My point is to demonstrate that Steven was feeling the same frustration and anger any child would when they have a preferred object taken away from them. In this case, however, rather than cry like a typical child, Steven was not able to express his anger so he rampaged around the room and tried to destroy everything in sight and make a giant mess-his way of getting back at me for disciplining him. When I sat down and had a brief discussion with Steven and asked the right questions, he was clearly able to express what he was feeling and tell me why.

More to the point, once Steven was able to articulate why he was angry, he came to his own solution. Rather than lashing out and externalizing his anger, he took control. In that conversation with Steven, I go the impression he did not know why he was angry at first, but once he called me a butthead he realized that my actions made him angry. And he fixed it. I call that a victory for Steven.

He did learn to use his words much better to express his inner state after that for the duration of the school term. His rage-y tantrums decreased as well. It was the first step of what I hope will be many on his emotional development.

A second example is more of a practical one. An autistic student (“John”) was walking down the hall with me toward the bathroom. He randomly started to make a high pitched scream that made my blood boil. Then he did it again and again…every time looking at me for attention.

Caption: All I could hear was this!

This was bugging me, so before I lost it, I stopped, looked at him, and told him to pay attention. I simply told him that the noise he was making was starting to get on my nerves. I then said that if he kept making it that I was going to get angry.

What happened? He stopped. He looked at me, cocked his head off to the side for a moment, and stopped making obnoxious noises. All he needed was to be given a legitimate reason to do so. This is important since this child has the habit of being so annoying even the other autistic kids are getting on line to beat him up. However, until I did, no one had taken the time to explain to him that certain of his behaviors may result in other kids (or his teacher) being angry at him. That was all the cue he needed to stop being annoying. I hope it helped him realize that annoying is not the way to make friends. I hope I also gave him an insight into how his actions may influence the emotions and feelings of other people.

Really?!? No one is doing this?

What I promise not do in my classroom (but everyone else on the internet seems to be doing):

I will never tell my students how they are feeling. I will never diagnose their emotions based on their behaviors and body language. It is unfair and the price for being wrong is steep. I will never say (as I saw on the internet) “Jimmy, I see you are angry because you have your arms folded and are scowling”. I will never presume to know more than they do about themselves.

I will never attribute emotions to physical/medical states. For example, if a child has chronic gastric reflux I am not going to assume they are having a meltdown because they are avoiding work.

I am not going to have any expectations regarding emotions in my classroom. It is not fair for me to impose my perceived right and wrong emotional states on my students.

And most importantly, if a child is mad at me for something I did and tells me so, I will never, ever, ever tell them they are wrong to feel so. Because they aren’t. It is on me to work on my behavior to not be so irritating to them, not theirs to learn how to suppress their natural emotional reactions.

My plan in the classroom is to do the following:

When I see that I have a student that is having trouble appropriately expressing an emotion (inappropriate=hurting people, throwing things, biting and other antisocial behaviors, etc), I will personally approach them and engage in a dialogue. This dialogue will start out similar to the one with Steven. I will ask them if they have a reason for why they are engaging in inappropriate behavior. When they inevitably falter with a response, I will help them along by rephrasing their answers and letting them continue. I am not interested in putting words in their mouths. I am interested in them finding their own words. If they are nonverbal, then I will use whatever measures I can to reach them, to the point of having them physically show me what is triggering an outburst.

Once they can tell me in their own words what emotion they are feeling, I validate it. Period. If they are pissed off at me, then I accept they are angry at me and let them know that is okay. If they are uncontrollably happy because they did something they never did before, then that is similarly okay. Ditto if they are sad or frustrated or embarrassed. They have a right to feel however they are feeling so long as it is not based on an imagined slight (e.g., being mad because “someone else wants to do something bad to me” is not allowed because it is not grounded in reality). I will use a less loaded synonym to restate that I see they are upset (rather than angry), and that they have a right to feel that way. Then I will ask how they feel they should act when feeling this particular emotion. We will work together to help each student learn how to live with and work under their varied emotional states.

Only when they completely understand 100% that I am not angry at them or going to discipline them for their emotions, then we can engage in a discussion on the fact that their behavior, not their feelings were unacceptable. I am cool with anger, not so cool with hitting another student or trying to break school property. If they tell me at that point they just had so much anger they had to do something, we will work on a plan involving a break for exercise to gain composure and return to class. If they are mad at me, we will discuss it to see if it is a behavior I can change or if they are going to have to deal with it (I am not going to stop requiring them to work after all).

What I hope my students will be able to gain is an ability to recognize their emotions for themselves. Then use this information to guide their behavioral choices.

Put another way, I want them to control their behaviors. I do not want them to control their emotions.

I want them to feel empowered by the knowledge of their feelings and sense of control that it brings. In short, I want them to thrive, emotionally. I want them to grow. And I want them, to be the ones making these breakthroughs, not me.


5 thoughts on “Autistic children have the same emotions we all do…let’s nurture them

  1. Reblogged this on xoxosanaz and commented:
    An enlightening and thought-provoking post on dealing with the emotional states of children with autism. I do work with these kids and so I can relate to it. I try not to make assumptions, but at times it becomes inevitable, especially, in cases of individuals who don’t communicate or ones who do so but less often.


  2. I re-blogged this. I do agree with you. I work with these kids on a volunteering basis. At times, it is hard to not make assumptions especially with kids who do not communicate verbally or ones that do but less often.


    1. Thank you. Growing up with a nonverbal twin with autism I saw first hand how easy it is to ignore or neglect the emotional health of kids with autism.

      I can say, I have been working extra hard to practice my preaching at summer school this week. I can say that even in a very short time you can see a change int he connection with students when you give them the space to deal with their own emotions and validate them. It is still hard to train away any learned violence or lashing out, but the recovery time after any meltdowns reduces dramatically. And to me, that has to be worth it for any child that is just trying to survive day by day.


    2. Exactly. Suppression of emotional expression or limited space for expression has negative consequences. From my own personal experience, kids are very intuitive and catch up on emotional cues and the whole energy pretty soon. This is why they react and act out.

      Your comment reminded me of this article I read which basically suggested that mirror neuron activity dysfunction in children with ASD results in them not being able to understand emotional states in others. When I read it, I was surprised because I have witnessed, personally, the opposite. Experiences usually do tend to speak louder than clinical psychology.


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