“Johnny, why didn’t you use your social skills?” Those who teach social skills to youth on the Autism Spectrum understand that experiencing overwhelming emotions answers this question all too often. Youth on the Autism Spectrum regularly experience intense emotions and these intense emotions make implementing social skills very difficult. That’s why managing them is in itself a social skill. So how do you incorporate emotion regulation into teaching social skills?
Start at the Beginning
Learning emotion regulation begins with teaching youth how to understand emotions. Understanding what emotions are, what they feel like and how to identify them is a start. But practitioners must also curate an understanding of why emotions are there. There is a common misconception that uncomfortable emotions are nuisances at best. Teaching that emotions are not dangerous, but rather manageable, and actually, incredibly helpful in giving us clues about the situation is a powerful reframe. Changing the relationship with emotions is how to begin this process.
Teach Situational Assessment
Accurately assessing the magnitude of a situation is a skill that must be cultivated as well. Michelle Garcia Winner has a fantastic exercise that has youth break down problems into small, medium and big categories. She describes what each category consists of (e.g. small problems are glitches that are easily fixed, and go away pretty quickly). She also has students break reactions down into those same categories (e.g. a small reaction is saying “no big deal” and being okay with things turning out differently than expected). Understanding the accurate magnitude of a situation allows for an appropriate action in response. This, in turn, lowers the emotional impact of a negative situation and equips youth with a guide for problem solving.
Give Tools to Handle Overwhelming Emotions
The key to emotion regulation is using tools to manage intense emotions. This is where elements of Dialectical Behavior Therapy can be incredibly helpful. Skills such as Wise Mind Accepts, IMPROVE, TIPP, Self-Soothing with the Six senses, Checking the Facts, Problem Solving, and Opposite Action are just some of the concrete strategies that can be modified to fit the capabilities and needs of each child. But one of the most important DBT skills in the management of difficult emotions is the Cope Ahead tool. In practicing Cope Ahead, individuals anticipate and plan for known triggers. When youth create a toolbox of skills ahead of problematic situations and rehearse their use, they can be more predictive of situations that may be difficult and are empowered to take control of overwhelming experiences. Emotion regulation is the underpinning of all social growth and thus a fundamental element for practitioners and parents in teaching and coaching the use of social skills.
Dr. Jeffrey Kranzler, Ph.D. LCSW-C, specializes in treating children, teens and young adults with Anxiety, Depression and Autism Spectrum Disorders and offers parent coaching at Julie Baron and Associates. He can be reached at DrJeff@juliebaronandassociates.com.