Mothers and Autistic Children: Co-Managing Emotions

Children diagnosed with autism are characterized as having poor social and emotional awareness and responsiveness. These children often have difficulty managing their emotions and may not know why they feel a certain way. However, a recent study of autistic toddlers and their mothers shows that toddlers with autism can display a range of coping strategies to deal with unexpected emotions. Moreover, the study proved the response of the mother may play a crucial role in helping autistic children deal with their emotions in a more positive way.

As part of the study 34 mother/child pairs had their behavior video recorded during a series of 24 early intervention play sessions. During the series a trained interventionist helped coach and guide the mother through 10 different parenting modules “each targeting specific early joint attention, language skills, and joint engagement with the mother.”  The goal was to help teach the mother various skills to co-regulate their autistic child’s emotional response during negative situations. The last ten minutes of the playtime was recorded and the interventionist simply observed the mother and child at play, without giving advice or training.

Toddlers displayed emotional distress frequently—about 20% of the time—but that they also displayed a wide range of strategies designed to cope with that distress. Most of the strategies were actions, like finding ways to relieve tension or distracting themselves with something else. These strategies differed from those of older children, who tend to use more verbal strategies to calm themselves down.

The way the mothers responded to their children’s coping strategies, the more their toddlers were likely to mimic these coping strategies themselves. And as many of the toddlers’ active coping strategies were directed at the mothers, they seemed to be expecting emotional support from them. Furthermore, when the mother’s comforted their toddlers, the children were less distressed. This is comforting news for parents of autistic children who may worry that their children don’t seek them out for comfort. Active responses, such as redirecting toddlers away from frustrations or helping them with difficult tasks, saw the highest correlation to active and varied toddler coping strategies. More verbal comforts were not as effective. Interestingly, most mothers primarily used active responses naturally.

Emotion regulation is a process of coping with new feelings as they arise. The process involves learning coping strategies to prevent these feelings from becoming disruptive. For example, some of us leave a room and count to ten when we’re angry to avoid snapping at someone. Developing coping strategies to regulate our emotions is linked to many social skills that make complicated social interactions possible. Autistic children often have difficulty with these coping strategies, which is coupled with higher than average rates of distress.

The study does have some limitations. Since it could only measure correlations, we can’t say what, if any, kind of causal relationship child coping strategies and mother responses have with each other. Also, almost all the toddlers were boys, who could have different coping strategies than girls. But it’s clear that autistic toddlers do use a wide range of coping strategies that they employ to deal with upsetting emotions. Mothers’ active responses seem to be crucial to decreasing their children’s distress and encouraging the use of these coping strategies. The more autistic toddlers can learn to use healthy coping strategies, the better equipped they may be to handle socially and emotionally challenging situations later in life.

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