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The Emotional Toolbox for Autistics | John Greally


The Emotional Toolbox for Autistics



Autistics, ‘alternative people’ can benefit from these three good approaches: – alternative strategies, alternative education, alternative nurturing.  

Not these three bad approaches:
– normalising therapy, normalising ABA, normalising restraints. The former involves working with your child and your child’s strengths for life.

  The latter involves working against your child and their strengths, on their weaknesses, merely parsing the message they are broken  

– abusing them, failing them, devaluing them to an early death even. Negative emotions turned inwards can appear as sadness, OCD’s, self-injury, depression, anxiety, panic, pre-catatonia, suicidal ideation, etc.

  – the leading problems (downstream co-occurring conditions) besetting autistics whose autism is not properly accommodated, allowed for, accepted as a permanent fact, a valid difference and disability. It really helps if your child can communicate better and better by their chosen means.  

Turned outwards, these same negative emotions can appear as expressions of pain, avoidance, withdrawal, agitation, oppositionality, irritation, damage, anger.  

Inwards or outwards, to an extent you get to help decide which forms of communication occur… constructive or destructive. Having a pre-prepared toolbox means having strategies to hand.

A toolbox does not fix an autistic or fix autism. Neither needs fixing.

Along with
– insight into what is going wrong or could go better, and

– communication without judgement or negative reaction,
is an emotional toolbox, a third part of an equation, that seeks to see things differently, seeks to avoid the breakdown, seeks  

– using the toolbox – to reduce the intensity of emotions experienced, channel them, and help people involved understand the role thoughts play when anxiety-producing situations arise, things go wrong or not according to plan (plans which really matter to us!).  

You already know you want your child to learn good things – and a toolbox points to positive options you want them to embrace. Make sure you BOTH own what’s in the toolbox as you go along.

  There are six categories of tools, then an extra category for you to add those you discover that do not fit, and one category for what NOT to do.

  Under each heading you will find examples to get your creativity going, in conjunction with your child’s ideas, siblings, other autistics, other parents, and professional health providers.

  Please note: that medication is *purposely* placed as last of the 6 main categories… and a really honest appraisal with outside expert help (professionals and autistics) is really needed for the preceding 5 previous strategy groups before even considering them.

Honest appraisal. Honest attempts. Input. First.

1. Physical Tools: physical activities that quickly release emotional energy

  • Jump on a trampoline, on the spot or on a big ball
  • Go on the swing
  • Take a walk, go for a run or a bike ride, dance, swim
  • Play sports (doesn’t have to be in a team) or do exercises
  • Do house work/chores
  • Watch a comedy (to laugh)
  • You will get the idea and think of many better things to add.

2. Relaxation Tools: slowly release emotional energy and help to calm and lower the heart rate

  • Retreat to a quiet place
  • Do progressive muscle relaxation (tension-release)
  • Draw or paint
  • Do crafts, read, listen to music
  • Rock gently
  • Access fidget items (e.g. spinners, stress ball, stones, soft objects, worry beads)
  • Organize personal belongings or do relaxing chores
  • Watch a television program, favourite film, look at a photo album
  • Listen to a recorded message from an important person in one’s life (parent, grand-parent)
  • Ask for a break and incorporate breaks into the day

3. Social Tools: help manage emotions and change moods through interaction with a person or an animal

  • Go see a person you trust
  • Talk to a friend, teacher, parent, grand-parent, counselor or support person
  • Show altruism – help others or do something for someone
  • Volunteer (help classmates, students in another classroom, in the library or office, at a local pet store)
  • Spend time with a pet

4. Thinking Tools: capitalize on intellectual strengths to teach how to change thinking and manage emotions

  • Replace poisonous thoughts with antidotes (positive self-talk)
  • Create a mantra (positive and calming statement)
  • Imagine a calm, positive or happy scene or area
  • Imagine a positive result through visualization or Cognitive Picture Rehearsal
  • Use logic and facts to put the situation in perspective
  • Engage in an academic task that helps one calm down and feel successful
  • Keep an object that symbolizes calm
  • Create a “happy book/album” of successes, fun activities, talents and strengths
  • Peruse “self-help” information
  • Refer to strategies on the 3-point or 5-point scales, emotional thermometer, etc.

5. Special Interest Tools: provide pleasure, relaxation and serve as an ?off switch”

  • Engage in a special interest or hobby for a specific amount of time (make time more concrete with a timer, watch, etc.)
  • Incorporate special interests into the schedule
  • Incorporate special interests or talents into the curriculum, employment or volunteer work
  • Do ‘downtime’ – where autistics are protected from interruption while engaging in a special interest of any type – deeply – allowing them to process while the activity disengages critical thought that worries them.

6. Medication: used to treat certain mood disorders

  • Work collaboratively with health care professionals – not quacks
  • Follow the physician’s instructions closely
  • Record any side effects (positive and negative) and discuss with the physician
  • Understand that medication is a tool – but that it should not be the only tool in the toolbox. Medications buy time in such strategies – time to figure out what would be better. They are not a long-term solution in most cases. Keep working the 5 higher strategies please! Medications are not a replacement for these 5!

7. Other Tools: reduce anxiety or effects of negative emotions but do not belong in a specific category

  • Read biographies and autobiographies of people who were or are autistic
  • Join a well-governed on-line age-appropriate autistic group
  • Develop self-advocacy skills
  • Work on the Autistic Autonomy Checklist to see progress achieved
  • Educate others about strengths, needs and accommodations necessary for success
  • Self-reinforce for using new tools
  • Identify sensory tools that allow avoidance of certain negative sensory stimuli or minimize their effects

8. Inappropriate Tools: tools which are harmful or counterproductive; it is crucial to identify inappropriate tools so that they may be replaced with more appropriate tools

  • Quack medicines and Therapies (e.g. ABA, bleach, dangerous diets, cures, stem cells, etc.)
  • Substance abuse/Street Drugs
  • Wrongful us of prescription drugs
  • Alcohol/Energy drinks
  • Self-harm or suicidal ideation
  • Violence, aggression and revenge
  • Promiscuous or sexually-risky behaviours
  • The Future

No autistic will get it right at first go, or twentieth either. Parents either. This is a collaborative building of things to do that are “better”, and of the strengths needed to remember to engage the toolbox as early as possible.   It is important to regularly add tools to the toolbox, examine the tools to make sure they are still useful and remove harmful tools or any tools that negatively impact the wellbeing of an Autistic. An open mind to discover the limitless possibilities for tools is vital. Updated adaptation from – Prof Attwood’s ‘Emotional Toolbox’   Updated and Circulated by: (John Greally) Discussion & Support:

By Eve Reiland

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