The emotion repair toolbox

Published by Tony Attwood on

The emotion repair toolbox

Autistic children and adults usually have a limited range of emotion repair mechanisms and are less likely to use the more effective strategies used by typical children and adults, such as putting the event in perspective, reappraising the situation, considering alternative responses, acceptance, or being able to disclose feelings to another person, thus seeking, and benefiting from compassion, validation and affection from a family member or friend. However, autistic children and adults can learn new emotion repair strategies, and these can be conceptualised as acquiring more emotion repair tools.

From a very early age, children will know a toolbox contains a variety of different tools to repair a machine or fix a household problem. The strategy is to identify different types of ‘tools’ to fix the problems associated with negative emotions, especially anxiety. The emotion repair for autistic children and adults can be conceptualised as a problem with ‘energy management’, namely, an excessive amount of emotional energy and difficulty controlling and releasing the energy constructively. Autistic individuals appear less able to slowly release emotional energy by relaxation and reflection, and usually prefer to fix or release the feeling by an energetic, potentially destructive action or thought and emotion blocking action.

The range of tools can be divided into those that quickly and constructively release, or slowly reduce, emotional energy, and those that improve thinking or reduce sensory responsiveness, as well as taking out of the toolbox those tools that can make the emotions or consequences worse such as self-harm.

Physical tools

A hammer can represent tools or actions that physically release emotional energy through a constructive and acceptable activity. For young autistic children, this can include bouncing on the trampoline, going on a swing or using playground equipment. Although these facilities may be available at a school, they may not be used by an autistic child due to the number of children using the same equipment, and the autistic child’s need to achieve solitude and avoid social interactions during break times. They may have special dispensation to use such equipment when the other children are in class. At home, it is easier to encourage such physical activities as an emotional repair mechanism.

For older children and adolescents, going for a run, or dancing alone in a bedroom may be used to ‘let off steam’ or release supressed or increasing emotional energy. An autistic adult described how, ‘running keeps anxiety away.’ Other activities may include cycling, swimming or playing the drums, tennis practice or horse riding, and going to a fitness centre.

Unfortunately, autistic children and adults often feel, and indeed may be, clumsy and poorly coordinated, and have often been teased in the past by peers for not being good at team sports and ball games. While research has confirmed that physical exercise decreases repetitive behaviour, aggression, inattentiveness and escape behaviours in autistic children (Lang et al., 2010), there may be limited motivation and low self-confidence with physical activities. A personal trainer may be able to assess the child or adult’s body type and personality and design a specific programme of realistic and achievable physical activities that can be completed in solitude, and do not involve activities in a social context where there is a risk of ridicule. We recognize that regular exercise is excellent for mental and physical health, but also to improve clarity of thought and problem-solving abilities. ‘Exercise will make you smarter’ is a concept we explain to autistic children and adults who often value and seek to demonstrate their intellectual ability.

Some autistic children and adults have identified that destruction is a physical tool that can be a very effective ‘quick fix’ to end unpleasant feelings of suppressed or increasing anxiety, depression and anger. At home, there are some household activities that provide a satisfying and constructive release of potentially destructive energy, without causing damage that may require expensive repairs.  For example, empty cans, water bottles or packaging can be crushed for recycling, or old clothes torn up to make rags. This ‘creative destruction’ might be the repair mechanism of first choice at home, and especially when returning home from school or work.

Relaxation tools

Typical children and adults usually know intuitively how to relax, and it is a state of mind that they will have often experienced. This may not be the case with an autistic person. Our extensive clinical experience has indicated that there is often a difficulty in achieving a state of relaxation, and confusion as to what to do when someone says, ‘Just relax.’

Relaxation tools help the person lower their heart rate and gradually release and reduce emotional energy. Perhaps a picture of a paintbrush or spirit level could be used to illustrate this category of tools for emotional repair. Relaxation tools or activities could include drawing, reading and especially listening to calming music to slowly unwind negative thoughts and fears. Routine chores or activities can result in a sense of accomplishment, satisfaction and relaxation when complete.

A characteristic of autism is find that solitude, in the sense of being alone rather than lonely, is a very effective means of relaxing. Being away from people, and from certain sensory experiences – perhaps retreating to a quiet, secluded sanctuary – is an effective way of reducing anxiety and stress, and achieving relaxation and emotional repair. The autistic person will need islands of tranquillity and solitude both at school or work and at home.  It may be possible for the autistic child or their parent to talk to a teacher about accessing somewhere secluded at school during break times or recess, for example, the library. Such solitude can be emotionally refreshing and a means of true and deep relaxation. A further source of relaxation can come from being in nature, walking or camping in a natural environment, with few social encounters and only natural sensory experiences and engaging with the wildlife.

Cue-controlled relaxation is also a useful emotion repair tool. The strategy is for the person to have an object, perhaps hidden in his or her pocket, that, through association, symbolizes and engenders feelings of being calm and relaxed. For example, an autistic child may feel relaxed when on holiday and going fishing: thus, a fishing float in a pocket can be retrieved and looked at to recreate the feelings, images and sensations of relaxation and enjoyment when fishing.

Meditation tools

In Western cultures, there is a growing awareness and appreciation of the value of activities such as yoga in encouraging a general sense of well-being and providing an antidote to anxiety. We now have yoga activities specifically developed for autistic children to use at school and home (Betts & Betts, 2006; Bolls & Sewell, 2013; Mitchell 2014; Hardy, 2015), and some teachers are now using classroom and individual meditation activities to encourage relaxation and enhanced attention for the whole class. Mindfulness is also being used to regulate attention toward the present moment, to let an emotion pass and encouraging an attitude of openness and acceptance using imagery, meditation and yoga (De Bruin et al., 2015).

A meta-analysis of 123 studies of the effects of meditation of the brain found that eight regions of the brain were consistently enhanced in meditators (Fox et al. 2014). All eight brain areas are associated with autism. Thus, meditation can be perceived as a form of therapy for autism.

Social tools

This tool is to be with someone, or an animal, that can help repair the mood. These tools could be represented by a sponge to soak up the emotional distress. The social experience will need to be enjoyable and without the stress that can sometimes be associated with socialising, especially when the interaction involves more than one other person. For an autistic person, two are company, three a crowd. There are social experiences that reduce anxiety, for example, being with someone who has the ability to be like an emotional ‘sponge’, soaking up worries and anxious thoughts; a particular family member, teacher or colleague who accurately ‘reads’ the autistic person’s emotional state and intuitively knows what to say or do to be reassuring and calming. Another social tool, in the broadest sense, is spending time with pets that are non-judgemental listeners and more forgiving and accepting than humans. Sometimes, even just looking at photographs of favourite people and pets on a mobile phone or iPad can significantly decrease anxiety, despair, and agitation.  Someone emotionally close to an autistic child or adolescent could make an audio recording of soothing comments on their mobile phone to help them cope with extremely anxious or distressing moments.

Helping others

Another tool is the act of helping someone and being needed – an altruistic act. Autistic individuals can change their mood from self-criticism and pessimism to a feeling of self-worth and resilience when they experience opportunities to help and be of value to others. This can include activities such as helping someone who has difficulties in an area of the autistic person’s talents or expertise: for example, helping a teacher or sibling fix a problem with a computer. Being needed and appreciated is a significant emotional repair mechanism for all of us, including autistic individuals.

Internet activities

Internet support groups and conversations between subscribers or multi-player games participants can be an effective emotional repair mechanism. Autistic individuals often have greater eloquence and insight disclosing their inner thoughts and feelings by typing rather than talking; they don’t need skills with eye contact, or to be able to read a face or understand changes in vocal tone or body language when engaged in a ‘conversation’ on the Internet. The chat line or Internet conversation can include other autistic people who have genuine empathy and may offer constructive suggestions to repair a mood or situation.

Thinking tools

Another type of implement, such as a screwdriver or wrench, or a repair manual, can be used to represent a category of tools that can be used to change thinking or provide knowledge. The autistic person is encouraged to use his or her intellectual abilities to control feelings such as anxiety by using a variety of techniques such as self-talk or an internal dialogue such as, ‘I can control my feelings’, ‘I can stay calm’, or, ‘be a mirror, not a magnifying glass’. By using words and thoughts that are reassuring and encourage self-confidence and emotional resilience, the autistic person is encouraged to create a ‘force field,’ ‘suit of armour’ or ‘umbrella’ for emotional protection.

A thinking strategy is the creation of ‘antidotes to poisonous thoughts. The procedure is to think of a comment that neutralizes or is an antidote to negative (poisonous) thoughts. For example, the negative thought, ‘I can’t do it’ (poisonous thought) can be neutralized by the antidote, ‘If I stay calm, I will be quicker at finding the solution’; or ‘I’m a loser’ can be neutralized by the antidote, ‘but I’m a winner at Minecraft.’ A list is created of the person’s negative or poisonous thoughts, and the parent or teacher helps create a personalized antidote to each thought. Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) focuses on discouraging maladaptive thinking and encouraging adaptive thinking and CBT has been adapted to accommodate the characteristics of autism (Scarpa, Williams White and Attwood 2013). The maladaptive thinking associated with autism is a tendency to catastrophise (meltdown) or supress (engage in a special interest) and CBT encourages adaptive thinking such as self-soothing, perceiving alternative perspectives and the disclosure of feelings to others.

Academic or intellectual achievement

A tool that can be used with autistic children and adults to reduce anxiety and improve mood and resilience, is the achievement of academic success or acquiring knowledge on the Internet. When an autistic child is anxious or agitated in class, the teacher may instruct the child to complete an academic activity that he or she enjoys, and for which the child has a natural talent, such as solving mathematic problems, spelling, playing an instrument or drawing. This is in contrast to typical children, who would probably try to avoid academic tasks when stressed. Adults may reduce stress and improve their mood and self-esteem by seeking knowledge via the Internet or reading.

Additional tools: Sensory sensitivity, nutrition and sleep

The exploration and analysis of the causes of anxiety may include sensory sensitivity (Green & Ben-Sasson 2010). Experience has indicated that repeated exposure to the sensory experience does not easily lead to habituation and a reduction in sensitivity. Sensory sensitivity appears to be a life-long characteristic of autism, with adults creating life circumstances to avoid some sensory experiences or, with maturity, learning to consciously endure and tolerate such experiences, even though they may be just as aversive as they were during childhood. An occupational therapist may be able to provide advice on strategies to reduce or tolerate sensory sensitivity. For example, auditory sensitivity can be for both sounds of a particular pitch or volume, or general noise levels, and can include difficulty filtering out background sounds to focus on a teacher’s or line manager’s voice. Anxiety can occur due to the possibility of not being able to hear important instructions. Specific sounds can be avoided, or encountered less frequently, such as someone shouting; or being prepared and supported for particular events, such as fire alarm testing. A Sensory Integration Programme created and conducted by an occupational therapist may reduce sensory sensitivity.

Clinical experience and advice from mature autistic adults suggest that physical and emotional well-being can be improved by reducing the amount of junk food consumed and having a good diet with nutritious food (Attwood, et al., 2014). While junk food is popular, well-advertised and easy to acquire, and can provide some comfort in the short term, the problems, which range from unstable mood to weight gain, outweigh the perceived benefits. Healthy food does contribute to a healthy mind.

We recognize that autism is associated with a range of sleep disorders (Chen et al 2021; Kotagal, & Broomall, 2012;). Sleep has many functions, one of which is to refresh mind and body. The sleep cycle associated with autism can be unusual, for example, taking some time to actually fall asleep (especially if worried about events of the day, or fearfully anticipating the next day), with a tendency for there to be a disturbance of the depth and quality of sleep subsequently. While attention to, and modification of, sleep routines, and medications such as Melatonin, can all help establish a reasonable sleep cycle, if problems persist, a referral to a sleep clinic may be needed. Having restful and deep, uninterrupted sleep can lead to an improvement in the ability to manage emotions such as anxiety.

Summary for the emotional toolbox

We recognise that autistic children and adults will have difficulties managing and expressing feelings which become increasingly significant throughout childhood, and especially in the adult years. Autistic adults often rate problems with anxiety and depression as having a far greater effect on their daily lives than making and keeping friends and getting and keeping a job (Attwood, et al., 2014). Thus, we need to recognize the importance of emotion repair at home, school and at work.


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