How Does Autism Affect Emotional Development

Unravel how autism affects emotional development and explore evidence-based treatments for your child.

steven zauderer
Steven Zauderer
May 8, 2024
9 min read
min read

Understanding Autism Behavior

Autism behavior is a complex and fascinating topic. It involves understanding how autism affects emotional development and the unique behavioral challenges that people with autism might face.

Impact on Emotional Development

Autism has a significant impact on emotional development. Autistic children and teenagers may interpret all negative or unpleasant emotions as anger or physical sensations, and they might struggle to recognize when they're excited or label all hard-to-describe emotions as 'being bored'.

Furthermore, they may need support to recognize, interpret, and respond appropriately to other people's emotions. They may not notice when someone is confused, upset, or angry, or might misinterpret emotions of others as being directed at them [1].

On a broader scale, autistic pre-teens and teenagers can struggle to recognize emotions in themselves and others when upset, and may find it difficult to interpret facial expressions, tone of voice, or body language.

Contrary to the stereotype that people with autism lack empathy, research indicates that they often experience typical or excessive empathy. Some individuals with autism have difficulties with emotions, but this may be associated with alexithymia, a condition that makes it hard to understand and identify one's emotions. About 50% of people with autism have alexithymia, compared to about 10% of the general population.

Behavioral Challenges

Autistic children and teenagers can find strong emotions overwhelming and may need help to manage and calm down from these emotions. But they can learn techniques to manage these emotions effectively [1].

People with autism often have difficulties recognizing another person's emotions. However, scientific evidence shows that these challenges could be associated with alexithymia rather than autism itself. Individuals with alexithymia have issues with emotion recognition, while autism is not directly associated with this difficulty.

Research also indicates that people with autism, with or without alexithymia, spend less time looking at faces compared to individuals without autism. These findings suggest that the theory that autism impairs emotion recognition is disproven, as individuals with autism are not necessarily lacking in empathy. It highlights the need for tools to help those with both autism and alexithymia understand and manage emotions while encouraging individuals with autism who do not have alexithymia to focus on building emotional strengths to improve social interactions [2].

In conclusion, understanding how autism affects emotional development is crucial in supporting individuals with autism. The challenges they face are unique, but with the right support and understanding, these challenges can be managed effectively.

Evidence-Based Treatments

To understand how autism affects emotional development, it's essential to explore the evidence-based treatments designed to address behavioral challenges and developmental delays associated with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). These treatments, when implemented correctly, can significantly improve a child's ability to navigate social situations, communicate effectively, and live as independently as possible.

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is a widely accepted approach for treating symptoms of ASD. ABA encourages desired behaviors and discourages undesired behaviors, thereby improving a variety of skills in children. ABA involves tracking and measuring progress over time, allowing for adjustments to the therapy based on the child's unique needs and development.

In the context of emotional development, ABA can help children with ASD to understand and regulate their emotions better, as well as improve their social interaction skills.

Speech and Language Therapy

Speech and Language Therapy is another common developmental therapy for individuals with ASD. This therapy helps enhance the understanding and use of speech and language, whether verbal or non-verbal. Non-verbal communication may include signs, gestures, pictures, or the use of electronic communication devices.

By improving communication skills, this therapy can significantly improve a child's ability to express their emotions and understand the emotions of others. This can lead to improved social interactions and overall emotional development.

Occupational Therapy

Occupational Therapy aims to teach skills to those with ASD that promote living independently. This may include activities such as dressing, eating, bathing, and interacting with others.

By learning these practical skills, children with ASD can gain a greater sense of self-efficacy and independence, which can positively impact their emotional development and self-esteem.

In conclusion, these evidence-based treatments are crucial tools in helping children with ASD navigate their emotional landscape. They provide strategies and techniques to help these children improve their social skills, communication abilities, and daily living skills, thereby enhancing their overall emotional development.

Individualized Education Plan

Addressing the needs of a child with autism requires a personalized approach. Two key components of this approach are the Individualized Education Program (IEP) and the Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP). Both of these plans are designed to provide tailored support that optimizes the child's development and learning.

Importance of IEP and IFSP

Federal laws like the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA '04) mandate the use of evidence-based academic and behavioral practices and programs for children with autism. These laws highlight the importance of having an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or an Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP) for each child.

An IEP or IFSP is a legal document that outlines the child's specific learning expectations and the services the school will provide. It includes the child's current performance, annual goals, the services the child will receive, and how progress will be measured. Receiving additional support in school is associated with lower levels of emotional and behavioral problems in children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) [5].

Goal Setting for Behavior

Goal setting is a vital part of an IEP or IFSP. This plan should include specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound (SMART) goals for the child's behavior and learning. These goals should be based on the child's current abilities and targeted areas for improvement.

When setting behavioral goals, it's essential to focus on promoting positive behaviors rather than just eliminating negative ones. Goals can range from improving social skills, enhancing communication abilities, to managing challenging behaviors. Each goal should be tailored to the child's needs and should be achievable within a specified timeframe.

By setting clear and specific goals, educators and parents can monitor the child's progress and adjust the plan as needed. Goal setting also allows for the child's achievements to be recognized and celebrated, which can boost their self-esteem and motivation.

Overall, an IEP or IFSP plays a crucial role in a child's educational journey. It ensures that the child's unique needs are met and that they receive the support they need to thrive. The importance of goal setting in these plans cannot be overstated, as it provides a clear path for the child's development and learning. By working together, educators and parents can help mitigate the impact of autism on emotional development.

Emotional and Behavioral Issues

One of the key aspects of understanding how autism affects emotional development is examining the prevalence of emotional and behavioral issues in children with autism, as well as identifying the factors that influence behavior.

Prevalence of Emotional Problems

Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) attending mainstream schools have been observed to have higher levels of emotional and behavioral problems compared to other children. They also have lower levels of prosocial behavior, which refers to behaviors that are intended to benefit others.

A significant proportion of children with ASD have emotional and behavioral problems at a level of clinical concern. Research indicates that up to 40-50% of children with ASD fall into this category. Additionally, approximately 41% of young people with ASD may meet the criteria for two or more mental health disorders.

ASD Children Emotional and Behavioral Problems
In mainstream schools Higher levels
Prosocial behavior Lower levels
Clinical concern 40-50%
Multiple mental health disorders 41%

Factors Influencing Behavior

Several factors influence the emotional and behavioral problems experienced by children and young people with ASD. These include male sex, more severe autism symptoms, fewer adaptive skills, and higher levels of family socio-economic risk. All these factors are associated with higher levels of emotional and behavioral problems.

On the other hand, receiving additional support in school is associated with lower levels of emotional and behavioral problems in children with ASD. This underlines the importance of adequate support systems in managing the emotional and behavioral issues associated with autism.

Factors Impact on Emotional and Behavioral Problems
Male sex Higher levels
Severe autism symptoms Higher levels
Fewer adaptive skills Higher levels
High socio-economic risk Higher levels
Additional support in school Lower levels

Understanding these factors can provide valuable insights into how autism affects emotional development in children, and can inform strategies for addressing these challenges.

Early Intervention Strategies

Early intervention plays a vital role in managing how autism affects emotional development. It consists of services and supports designed to help children who have developmental delays or specific health conditions. Here, we will delve into the importance of early diagnosis and the benefits of early interventions.

Early Diagnosis Importance

Research shows that early diagnosis of and interventions for autism are more likely to have major long-term positive effects on symptoms and later skills [6]. Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can sometimes be diagnosed in children before they are 2 years of age, with early interventions occurring at or before preschool age, as early as 2 or 3 years old.

The significance of early diagnosis lies in catching the developmental window of maximum brain plasticity. This period provides the best chance for children to develop to their full potential. Recent guidelines also suggest starting an integrated developmental and behavioral intervention as soon as ASD is diagnosed or seriously suspected, emphasizing the importance of early detection and intervention for better long-term outcomes.

Benefits of Early Interventions

With early intervention, some children with autism make so much progress that they are no longer on the autism spectrum when they are older. Early intervention programs aim to help children gain basic skills that they usually learn in the first 2 years of life, such as:

  • Physical skills
  • Cognitive skills
  • Communication skills
  • Social or emotional skills
  • Adaptive skills

These programs often fall under state-run programs specified by Part C of Public Law 108-77: Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (2004), sometimes called "IDEA".

The sooner a child receives help through early intervention, the greater the chance for learning and progress. This highlights the critical role of early interventions in maximizing developmental potential in children with autism spectrum disorder.

In conclusion, while autism can considerably affect a child's emotional development, early diagnosis and intervention can significantly mitigate these effects. They provide an opportunity for children to learn essential skills and improve their developmental trajectory, thereby improving their quality of life and long-term outcomes.

Sensory Regulation and Emotional Development

A crucial aspect of understanding how autism affects emotional development involves examining sensory regulation and its role in managing emotions.

Role of Sensory Regulation

Sensory regulation is a crucial process through which our nervous system integrates and adjusts sensory input. This regulation allows us to maintain balance and optimal levels of arousal (energy). It encompasses our ability to respond to various sensory stimuli in our environment. When our sensory system is regulated, we can process and integrate sensory input in a way that allows us to navigate the world smoothly.

However, sensory dysregulation occurs when our sensory processing system struggles to manage and respond to sensory stimuli effectively. This can lead to heightened or reduced sensitivity to sensory input, affecting daily functionality, emotions, and overall well-being.

Sensory regulation serves as a fundamental building block for self-regulation. When sensory dysregulation or overload occurs, it inevitably affects our ability to effectively regulate other aspects of our lives, including emotions, executive functioning, and behavior.

Managing Emotions in Autism

Autism can significantly impact a child's ability to manage emotions. Autistic children and teenagers might interpret all negative or unpleasant emotions as anger or physical sensations, and they might struggle to recognize when they're excited. They might also need support to recognize, interpret, and respond appropriately to other people's emotions, and may not notice when someone is confused, upset, or angry, or might misinterpret emotions of others as being directed at them.

Autistic pre-teens and teenagers can struggle to recognize emotions in themselves and others when upset, and may find it difficult to interpret facial expressions, tone of voice, or body language. They can find strong emotions overwhelming and may need help to manage and calm down from these emotions but they can learn techniques to manage these emotions effectively [1].

Professional guidance can be beneficial for autistic children to understand and manage their emotions. Advice from a child's GP, paediatrician, psychologist, or other health professionals is recommended to explore therapies and supports for emotional development.

In conclusion, sensory regulation plays a crucial role in emotional development among children with autism. By understanding sensory regulation and its impact on emotions, parents and caregivers can better support the emotional development of children with autism.









steven zauderer

CEO of CrossRiverTherapy - a national ABA therapy company based in the USA.

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