Emotions... Why The Autistic Child Is Never Simply A Little Bit Angry!

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Note:  Anger, Unprovoked Aggression, Inappropriate Crying Or Laughter Can All Be Signs of Epilepsy!  Given Mercury Is Known To "Fry Neurons", This Now Makes A Lot More Sense! END OF UPDATE

It was my belief that much as sensory, behavioral and social aspects of the autistic child's life were impacted by the inability to properly process the parts to a whole, so too, was this the case with emotional issues.   In my opinion, because the autistic child was unable to understand "partialities" his life was one of "all or nothing"... having no room for the "in between" situation or "part" in anything – including emotions! 

In the autistic child  everything was “magnified” in that those areas that functioned well, functioned extremely well… those areas that were dysfunctional, had the potential for being extremely dysfunctional!

Thus, the inability to allow for the "physical" existence of "parts" that were not understood, in my opinion also applied to the inability to allow for the existence of "parts" to emotions.   As a result, emotions, like the physical world, become a matter of "all or nothing" in terms of what was "allowed" by the autistic brain.  For example, "parts" to emotions, I believed, were not understood - perhaps simply because they had never been "labeled" for what they were - "degrees" of emotion within the expression of one specific type of emotion.   Thus, as with everything else, for the autistic child, "degrees" of emotion  also had to be defined - to be understood.

Take for example the  "emotion" of "happy”.   Parents did not usually think of actually "teaching" the various "degrees of happy".   In my opinion, however, this was exactly what was needed to help the autistic child understand his emotions as well as to help him perceive the emotions of others.  I had noticed in Zachary that he could easily tell when "mom was very upset" but that unless I was "very upset", he really went about doing his daily activities without taking much notice of "how mom felt" during the day.    Likewise, he could easily perceive "very happy" when I laughed "very hard"  - and he too, usually ended up finding that "funny" and laughed “very hard” right along with me.  Yet, what he found funny was always "hilariously funny" and we always found ourselves wondering “why” things that “just were not that funny” to anyone else were always “hilariously funny” to Zachary.  If something was perceived as funny, at all – it was always, hilariously so!  If something was sad, it was almost “devastatingly” so.   Again, why the extremes even in emotions?  Why the hilariously funny? … Why the violent outbursts? … Why the tremendous aggression?  Why the so complete anger?

I truly came to understand this whole issue with "degrees of emotions" as I watched my autistic nephew who was approximately 11 years old.  It was then that I saw this issue with “partiality” truly spanned all areas of life… including not only what was perceived by the physical senses, but all those abstract things… like emotions, social, behavioral and, most likely, sexual issues as well.  

Andrew had exhibited all the characteristic behaviors of an autistic child.  As a younger child, he had been fascinated with many of the same things that currently fascinated Zachary.   As I observed Andrew, I often looked for "clues" of what I could expect to see in Zachary as he grew older also, in an attempt to help "prepare myself" for what was inevitably down the road for my autistic child. 

Like Zachary, Andrew was a very kind-hearted and intelligent boy.    He had a fantastic memory for specific things and excelled in or had immense difficulty in stereotypical areas of strength and struggle  for autistic children.   In July of 2002, while we were visiting many of my in-laws, almost all my nieces and nephews were playing together... all except Andrew.   He went around, talking to himself  - undoubtedly a form of ordering language in the older autistic child - and every once in a while, he would notice something another child did, something he thought was funny.   What hit me right away on this particular day, was the fact that what Andrew had "perceived as hilariously funny", most children would have perhaps only found "somewhat amusing".   Yet, there was Andrew, laughing hilariously at something that really "was not that funny" to begin with.

By this time, I had already figured out that partiality processing was an issue for the autistic child... but, what I had not realized until that very moment, was that partiality processing affected absolutely all aspects of the autistic child's life... including emotions!   Once again, it all made perfect sense!

Andrew  did not understand the "in between" emotion or "partial emotion" much as he could not understand the "parts" in anything else until they were first "explained" or "labeled".   As such, I came to quickly understand that for the autistic child, even "degrees of emotion" had to be labeled!   

As with so many other things in the life of the autistic child, we had made the mistake of assuming a child could at least "see all levels" of emotions, but for the autistic child  this was a very false assumption!  The fact that various "levels of emotion" were expressed every day by those all around the autistic child did not mean that the child necessarily "understood" those emotions, those degrees of emotions within a specific emotion.   I would argue, indeed, that the autistic child did not understand "in between" emotions until they were specifically taught.  Only then, did I believe, could the autistic child truly come to perceive "levels or degrees of emotion"... only then could he understand the "parts" or "degrees" to the whole - the type of emotion!

This easily explained not only issues with "hilarious or inappropriate laughter" so often seen in autistic children, it also explained the other extreme of emotions too - the violent outbursts of anger and aggression.  In autistic children, it was all too obvious that it seemed to take "almost nothing" to upset them tremendously.   Again, there was no "in between"...the autistic child was either "not upset" or "tremendously upset", "not finding something funny" or finding something to be "hilariously funny"...  and nowhere were "degrees" of either anger or happiness anywhere to be found!

I now truly came to understand that in order for the autistic child to "perceive" and understand the various "degrees" of emotion - in all types of emotion - those "degrees" literally had to be taught via labels and explanations.

The various or "in between" degrees of "happy", for example, needed to be taught to the autistic child since he knew no "in between" emotions.  The autistic child was either happy or not happy, sad or not sad, angry or not angry.  In my opinion, the autistic child experienced only the "full blown" emotion or none at all.  

As with everything else in the child's life... the part to the whole had to be defined to be understood...and again, this was why  labels were so critical for these children in coping with their world.   As with everything in the autistic child's world, when the parts could not be understood, they were simply ignored, or frustration surfaced and erupted in the form of anger and aggression, self injurious behavior and withdrawal and so many other "coping mechanisms" we saw in these children. 

Given this, how did you go about teaching "degrees" of emotion?  

As with so much in the life of the autistic child, this too, had to begin with a label.   For example, in teaching "degrees" of happy, the autistic child  needed to be given labels and specific examples of the following ideas or "levels" of "happy":  giggling, snickering, grinning, contentment, enjoyment, pleasure, satisfied, ecstatic, elated, overjoyed and so on.   The goal was to teach the various "degrees" or "in betweens" ... between the "a little happy" and "very super super, absolutely ecstatic happy". Once the child understood the various "labels" for the "in between" levels of "happy" or "mad" or "sad", he could then  himself, make use of these emotions because now, each specific level of emotion, each "degree" of emotion had been given a label ... making that "degree" or "part" to the emotion an entity in and of itself as opposed to a "part" to something else.   Emotions  should no longer become outbursts - in any direction - happy or mad - as labels to variations of one thing should provide a coping mechanism and greater understanding of the “range of emotions” for the child. 

In teaching a child to deal with anger and/or frustration, it now became necessary to show him the various levels of anger... to show him that "it's ok to be a little angry if this happens, but not very angry"... to show him what level or degrees of anger were appropriate for various situations.  So was it true for levels of aggression.    Autistic children needed to be shown what was acceptable “emotion” and “behavior” and what was not - given a specific situation.  The same would be true of "levels of screaming"... when was a little scream ok... and when was it ok to give out a huge scream!  All these "levels of emotion"  had to be taught to the autistic child!  :o)

Teaching the child to cope with his emotions via productive coping mechanisms, and helping the child understand alternatives to emotions, the "in between" emotions as opposed to only the extremes, I was convinced would be of great help to these children in anger and aggression management.  

I knew Zachary has some appreciation for the expression of emotions as seen in these pictures when asked to show me his "happy" and "sad" face.  

But, in teaching him, I previously had never thought about the "in between" in emotions... at least not until recently.  

Again, I longed for a teaching tool I had not yet seen in this area... a video whereby Zachary could actually see and be taught the "in between" emotions,  not simply the general concept of "happy" or "sad", for example.  In starting to teach Zachary degrees of emotions, something I found to be of help were all those "smilie" faces you saw on the Internet.  Zachary could  "relate" to them easily when I told him "what they were".  This technique seemed to work because each smilie came with that important "label".  This at least provided me with a “place to start” in this area of emotions.

There were tons of good links for "smilies" below for those of you who wanted to try this, too. 

As with everything else, the part of the whole  first had to be taught or understood in terms of how the part fit into the whole in order for even "emotions" to make sense for the autistic child...  in order to provide the necessary coping mechanisms for these children.  The "label" truly was the key to so much for these children.

For these children, life was indeed marked by emotion - the emotion of frustration - as these children desperately attempted to "break the code" in absolutely everything - including understanding emotions themselves, and why they felt the way they did... especially when that emotion was one of "sadness"! 

For Zachary, I had often noticed that when he was sad, he was very, very, very sad... and this had always troubled me a great deal - now, I finally understood why my son's sadness had been so intense that it broke my heart also!   I finally understood my son and in showing him I understood, I saw the joy in his face because I knew he finally sensed that I did understand!   His life, a life that had until recently so pervasively been marked by frustration, almost overnight lost much of that frustration because as I understood my son, I could now easily move in and help him deal with those things causing his frustration.  My work with Zachary could now be much more focused.  

The shackles of autism that had for so long enslaved my little boy were finally slowly starting to come off! 

Although I did not realize it, however, my truly complete understanding of Zachary’s issues would only come, literally, as I progressed in the writing of this document, as I was finally able to “put it all together”!

To help teach "degrees of emotion"  - smilie faces (links below) and words of quantity! (see section on Teaching Language) were a good place to start!

Links for "smilies" to help teach emotions to the autistic child.

















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