Neurodivergence and Emotional Response

May 19, 2023
Angie Kujath

What any educator will confirm is that every child is unique, whether on the spectrum or not. How they react to stimuli will vary among them, with some increased irregularity among our neurodiverse kids. Recognizing exactly how we’re feeling from their perspective, or how they’re feeling inside, can be difficult to interpret. Here are some common emotional responses to dispel some of the mystery. 

Emotion Response Cues

One thing to be sure of is our autistic kids want to communicate clearly to those around them, and they want to understand how they’re feeling. As they grow and develop, they will often learn to mimic others’ facial expressions, once their context is understood. But in the meantime it can be a challenge for them to pair physicality with their emotional counterparts. 

For this reason despite feeling frustrated, neurodivergent kids might show no outward display at all, or delay their reaction. Their uncertainty can lead to an intense build-up of emotion, and can sometimes release in an abrupt way. Over time students on the spectrum may come to understand an appropriate expression by observing others, or just need more time to process and translate their feelings. 

Other more physical reactions to emotions might seem incongruous to others but are quite soothing to the autistic child experiencing them. Hand flapping, stimming, pacing, rocking back and forth, fidgeting, and verbalizing with loud noises are common and generally not a random act, but instead tied to what they’re feeling.

A child might also use avoidance to physically escape overwhelming sensory stimuli like bright lights, or penetrating smells and noises, by retreating into solitude or simply turning away. This can be a defensive reflex when words fail, and a reflection of their inability to quickly process the moment. 

Modulating Intense Feelings

More powerful sensations can manifest in acts of irritability with the student, including crying, screaming, running away (eloping), hitting, throwing, shutting down, cocooning (hiding under or within a blanket, under pillows etc.), aggression toward others or themselves, uncontrolled anxiety, and rapid meltdowns. While these can feel like a runaway train by individuals in their midst, and the most intimidating to encounter, it’s important to note none of these reactions are an expression of defiance or disobedience. 

Although neurodivergent kids can have difficulty managing these emotions, adults can impact the severity and duration of these eruptions with their own behavior. If the student is willing to communicate with words, start by asking what they’re experiencing to identify a root cause. 

If not, try some investigating on your own. Has something in their immediate environment changed, something that might register as overwhelming or confusing? It might take time to understand their triggers, but observing the child in the context of their space will often reveal obvious irritants.

If there’s no way to eliminate the stressor, relaxation exercises can be helpful in bringing down the emotional temperature. Try taking deep breaths together, counting to 100, naming things that start with “R,” stress balls, fidget spinners, or tuning into their favorite music through a pair of headphones. Taking a walk to a quiet location can help hit the reset button, as well as some sort of a physical release, like a run to the fence and back, push-ups, or shooting hoops. 

When the student is having difficulty expressing their anxiety, your patience and cool head will bring everyone back to zen sooner, creating a safe place to eventually talk and pinpoint their frustrations, rather than lumping uncertainty or discomfort in with anger and fear. 

Practicing and Identifying

About half of the autistic community experiences Alexithymia, a phenomenon that makes it difficult to label one’s own feelings. With guidance however, by learning to pair outward appearances with specific emotions, their empathy for their peers grows, and understanding of their own feelings along with it. 

Everyday interactions are a great place to weave in learning.

  • When a classmate is smiling or laughing, recognize the reaction, and explain aloud. “How nice, Emily is smiling. She must be very happy.” 
  • Emphasize your own feelings and exaggerate your physical response. Put on your actor hat, tilt your head, and squint your eyes. “My face might tell you I’m confused.”
  • Identify non-facial expressions found in the body, so that the student can spot them when experienced. Sweaty palms, a racing heart, butterflies in the tummy, a lump in the throat, and tears in the eyes can all convey something pretty universal.
  • Create a game by imitating emotions and asking the students to describe how you’re feeling, and vice versa. Use flash cards, or flip through picture books or magazines, and explain all individuals feel a wide range of feelings in varying degrees of intensity. “Is this person a little sad, or very, very sad? How can you tell?”

One benefit of working with these wonderful kids is their genuine interest in sharing their emotions by one method or another. Inside all of us are complex thoughts, and very often we will hold back our feelings for the sake of keeping an even keel. Autistic kids often times aren’t as filtered, so translating their emotions is really just a matter of observation and leadership along the way. 

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