While previous posts have concentrated on how to help someone with ASD become calm once they are upset, this next series of post will discuss what to do once calming is achieved. The upsetting situation does not go away just because the person has become calm and often times redirection to another thought or activity is only a temporary fix. What has led to the person becoming upset will eventually resurface and needs to be dealt with an appropriate coping response.
When an upsetting situation occurs there are typically a few ways to respond. The first is acting on impulse or first thought. This type of response can be helpful if the person has a broad range of experience with the situation and has a strong knowledge base of how to proceed in these situations. Unfortunately, many people with ASD have limited experience in the social and life situations that are most upsetting for them and would have few appropriate responses to draw upon. Therefore reacting on impulse often leads responses that are either random or designed for immediate emotional relief without long term benefit. This type of approach should be discouraged for people with ASD, unless it is a situation where the person has a great deal of familiarity, like a special interest or regularly occurring activity.
When an immediate response may not be helpful. The next option would be to think of multiple possible responses then, after weighing the pros and cons of each, decide on the approach that you think will work best. This may also be difficult for people with ASD because of difficulty processing multiple thoughts simultaneously. For this approach to be successful for a person with ASD, they would likely have to think of a single response and evaluate its potential outcome. If the potential outcome was not pleasant then other responses could be generated until a response with a beneficial outcome was found. Some people with ASD may be able to perform this process independently, but others may need a visual outline to guide them along a decision tree. Still others may need to be verbally prompted to think of alternative responses and potential consequences. If the person is unable to think of alternatives and consequences, those can be suggested by others. the important aspects for the person with ASD to remember is that there is always a consequence for an action and there is always more than one way to solve a problem.
Finally, there are sometimes when the person cannot think of a reasonable response to a situation. In that case the person needs to talk to someone else about the situation. When with the other person, they can either ask for help in a situation or at least relate their feelings about what is upsetting them. Often just telling someone how you feel can lead to getting assistance, if not emotional support. Asking for help and discussing feelings are also difficult for people with ASD. People with ASD can be encouraged to discuss feelings by providing them a simple and direct way of doing so such as using 'I feel' statements. An example would be " I feel sad when I have to stop playing my favorite game." For those with less verbal skills, pointing to pictures depicting different emotions and situations may be helpful. The idea is to help the person with ASD connect a feeling word to the upsetting situation and thus be in a position to elicit emotional support and help. To encourage asking for help, explain how everyone needs help with some things and that it is ok to do so when needed. You may need to model asking for assistance by asking the person with ASD for help in an area of their expertise.
Hopefully these strategies will help. I often use the following cue words with clients to help with remembering: Slow down, Stop, Calm, Think, Talk.
Steven C. Altabet, Ph.D.