When children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are asked to use language for reasoning and problem solving, they can become easily and quickly overwhelmed. They also tend to have difficulty self-regulating, which involves staying calm and organized. This self-regulation is key for emotional development–essential for academic success, as well as interpersonal and employment success.
For all children, coping is achieved by “talking” one’s self through a stressful situation and working through the inner dialogue that goes on in our heads during everyday routines. For example, when a child sees a cookie on the kitchen counter, but has been told that he can’t eat the cookie until after dinner, an inner dialogue takes place that involves the child figuring out how to get the cookie without getting into trouble.
Additionally, an essential component of mature problem solving is the ability to understand when one is able to independently solve a problem or when one needs help. However, unlike typically-developing children, kids with ASD need assistance developing this inner speech and problem solving techniques.
- teach children to verbally express their feelings
- help children understand when they are feeling tired and need to stop
- educate children that learning can be difficult
- instruct kids about the need to ask for help
- stress the importance of adapting to new situations
- assume kids with ASD can use previously-learned knowledge for problem solving
- stop trying to understand the cause of a child’s frustrations
- believe children are not interested in learning
- forget to talk to kids about challenges and rewards
- overlook the fact that children are people pleasers
Understanding one’s emotional state requires a child to differentially name the varying degrees of intensity he/she feels in any given situation, and how to adapt or react accordingly. For example, “irritated” has a very different behavioral response than “enraged.” Many stressful situations can cause the same “tightening of the gut,” and that tightening is a physical expression of an emotional situation. Sometimes, this occurs when one is feeling unhappy, but it also can occur when one is feeling very excited.
By developing inner speech, a child can first categorize the feeling (good versus bad, happy versus sad) and then develop more defined labels for similar emotions (bored versus angry versus indifferent versus stressed or happy versus fabulous versus spunky). By being able to label and speak the emotion, such as, “I feel angry,” the child is able to communicate his/her feelings (anger) rather than act it out (throw something or hit someone).
When children get tired, they can emotionally deregulate, which results in acting out. It is important for children to understand what “tired” feels like, so they can verbally express this to the adult, thereby replacing the acting out behavior. Pausing or resting in response to the feeling of being tired is one way to prevent emotional dysregulation from occurring.
Another strategy is for children to learn to pace themselves. This occurs by helping them develop inner speech. The adult should model the inner dialogue by stating: “Your brain is showing me tired, and your brain is begging you to stop. Your brain is begging you to say, ‘I’m tired, so please stop.’ This is what tired feels like. When I hear, ‘I’m tired, can we stop,’ then we will stop.’’ The adult should then wait for the child to imitate with: “I’m tired, can we stop.” After this happens, the adult should praise the child for helping the adult understand that he/she is tired.
Getting stuck on a homework problem can cause stress. Children with under-developed inner speech will respond to this stress by tearing up the paper, throwing the paper away or screaming, “I can’t do this.” Consequently, kids with ASD need to be explicitly taught that learning is hard, but they can do it. The “problem” is the task, not themselves. A task is considered easy only after it is practiced.
Many adults are reluctant to ask for help because they simply don’t want to. In contrast, many children with ASD don’t know they need to ask. And equally important, they don’t know how to ask for help.
As with other behaviors, kids on the autism spectrum often act out the frustration they are feeling, rather than reason through how to actually solve the problem. Asking for help is part of problem solving. Adults should do several things: Explicitly describe the child’s behavior to the child, and interpret the child’s behavior to the child. For example, they can say: “When you roll your eyes and throw your book on the floor, you are showing me that you need help. When I hear, ‘This is hard, I need help,’ I can help you. I don’t understanding yelling or throwing, but I do understand the request for help. Let me know when you are ready.” The adult should then wait for the child to express the need for help, and praise the child for expressing his need for assistance, so that the adult can help him.
We learn about the world around us through personal experiences and watching/listening to others. This is called world knowledge. To successfully adapt to new situations, a child needs to activate world knowledge–every experience he has personally experienced, heard, eavesdropped on or watched–and compare and contrast the choices made during his/her life experiences to decide on a logical response to the current situation or problem. Teaching children how to adapt involves helping them develop inner speech.
Children with ASD have difficulty making logical, independent choices. The ability to do this requires comparing one’s previously learned knowledge with a current situation or context, and then adapting one’s behavior or response accordingly. Children with ASD have difficulty with vague or abstract language, such as “that wasn’t nice” or “pay attention.” Equally important, they have insufficient self-insight to understand when they can independently finish something and when they need to ask for help.
Children with ASD have limited ability to use self-reflection and self-insight as a means for learning how to independently adapt and change their behavior or responses. What appears to be acting out is actually the result of feeling frustrated by the task and not being able to express one’s feelings about it. When we analyze what it is about the task that is causing the frustration, and what we can do to decrease the stress, such as provide more visual support or use simpler language, we can then help children to express their feelings, increase their coping skills and return to the learning tasks.
Wanting to learn is natural in children; they are naturally curious. Unfortunately, due to the cognitive glitches that children with ASD have, it can be especially hard for them to channel their natural curiosity into functional learning and problem solving. It is their frustration, as a result of decreased understanding for problem solving, that causes them to act out, not a lack of motivation.
If you have ever undergone physical therapy, you know that exercising damaged bones, muscles and ligaments hurts. For children with ASD, learning is hard, and exercising their brain hurts. Children don’t grasp that the short-term discomfort they experience during challenging tasks will be rewarded by long-term knowledge. Children with ASD need to be explicitly taught this lesson by repeatedly being told how smart they are and understanding that after they practice, it will get easier.
Regardless of the behavior or response, all children want to earn approval and respect. The job of parents, teachers, counselors and therapists is to consistently empathize with a child’s stress and frustration. Always reassure children that you will be there to help them, no matter how challenging a task is for them.
The key to helping children with ASD is to understand what causes them to become emotionally dysregulated. By helping them use language to express their feelings, they can help us better understand what causes their dysregulation. And as they learn to use language to express their feelings, they also learn to use language for other kinds of problem solving necessary for interpersonal, academic, and eventually, employment success.