Teaching Emotional Intelligence to Kids on the Autism Spectrum
"It's o.k." is the default response of parents, teachers and therapists whenever a child reacts to something with anger, sadness or frustration. A little boy falls off the slide and scrapes his knee. "It's o.k." Everybody else's mom shows up to the kindergarten Mother's Day party. "It's o.k." The dog chewed up a favorite stuffed animal. "It's o.k."
No. No it's not O.K.
We live in a culture that is designed to avoid pain and even mild discomfort as if it is a bad thing. But is it? Pain, anger, frustration and sadness are the body's internal thermostat that tells us something is off balance and needs to be adjusted or changed. We need these emotions and we need to understand how to use them to work for us.
But what happens when we continually dismiss that thermostat?
We lose our ability to use this internal guidance system. We lose the ability to follow our intuition. For our children on the spectrum this is especially difficult because the autistic childhood is riddled with painful, confusing, overwhelming and frightening experiences. And since our society has such an aversion to anything perceived as "unpleasant" there is immense social pressure for parents of autistic children to get them to fit in and conform rather than work through the issue that is causing the pain, sadness or fear in the first place.
But every time a parent, teacher or therapists dismisses a child's feelings by saying "It's O.K." they are tell thing the child their feelings don't count and they can not trust their own emotions. Given that 66 1/2 percent of autistic individuals report being victims of abuse, dismissing feelings can become a serious problem, increasing the likelihood of an individual being subjected to and tolerating inhumane treatment.
The reason for this is simple. One of the indications of a controlling or abusive relationship is that the abuser dismisses or denies the other person's intentions and feelings which creates an environment where unacceptable boundary violations are normalized.
"You aren't upset."
"You don't know what you are feeling."
This allows for manipulation and control to occur without the person feeling that they can stand up for themselves and creates the environment for more boundaries to be crossed.
When a child has been taught that their own feelings should be honored and respected, it will be more difficult for someone to violate that emotional boundary.
Instead of dismissing feelings we need to be teaching our children to:
1-recognize what they are feeling
2-acknowledge these feelings
3-develop solutions based on these feelings.
Here is how it can be done:
Jordan fell off the slide and scraped his knee. His mother said, "Ouch! That looks painful. It hurts to scrape your knee but the pain will go away. Take a deep breath. Would you like a hug or a kiss before we put a bandaid on it?"
Emily started crying when her classmate asked her "Why didn't your mom come to our party?" The teacher said "Emily you look very sad. I would be sad too if my mommy couldn't come to my party. But guess what, you can give her the picture you made for her when you go home tonight and you can be together then."
Matthew's puppy Tux chewed up his favorite stuffed animal Curious George. His mother asked "Are you grumpy? I would be grumpy too. Tell Tux that what he did made you mad." When Matthew finished telling his puppy how he felt his mother then suggested a few things they could do. "Matt, would you like to doctor George's arm and make him better? You can help mommy sew him up. Or would you like to put George to bed for a rest?"
In each of the examples an adult identified the child's feelings or helped the child recognize their emotions. They acknowledged that it is normal, healthy and o.k. to feel. Then they gave the child specific actionable steps they could take to work through the feelings in a constructive way instead of dismissing or denying them.
Children on the spectrum may have a delayed response to both emotions and physical pain. It may take them several minutes or even days to begin to recognize how they feel about an experience so the earlier they have practice identifying how they feel the better equipped they will be to deal with growing up.