Why Behavior Strategies Are Not Enough for an Anxious Child on the Autism Spectrum

If you are a parent of a child on the autism spectrum, you know just how hard it can be to feel you are giving your child the best chance for success. If your child struggles emotionally, as many children with autism do, navigating these feelings can be especially difficult. You want to make sure you are giving your child access to as many services that can help him. But everything just feels so hard.

There’s speech therapy, and occupational therapy, maybe even physical therapy. Then there are the school services your child receives. And of course, Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA). You know all of these are important (and they are!), but it can be so hard on your child. 

Sometimes it feels your child has a full-time job.

Hopefully, your ABA team has been helpful putting plans into place. Whether it’s a morning routine, plan for getting started on homework or chores, transitioning out of the house, or learning to play different games, ABA can certainly be very important. But perhaps you’re noticing that your child is still having a hard time managing his emotions. Small issues keep turning into big feelings. You know how to ignore negative attention-seeking behaviors. Or reinforce positive behavior, but these feelings just seem so big for your child.

Just like so many other areas in their development, children with autism often experience delays in recognizing their emotions. As well as expressing them, and learning to cope. We often hear about sensory issues, symptoms of rigidity or trouble understanding the perspectives of others. But sometimes I feel we don’t talk enough about the emotional impact all of these issues can have on kids with autism. 

boy wearing a blue shirt

Like most other areas of their development, it’s not that a child on the autism spectrum can’t learn how to manage emotions, it’s just that they learn differently. 

If you are feeling your child with autism might need more than behavioral support in learning to manage emotions, here are some reasons why you might be right.

What ABA helps with your child on the autism spectrum.

A good ABA program can be so important in helping a child with autism develop adaptive skills and  routines. It can help parents learn how to reinforce healthy behaviors. And even learn to recognize when they are unintentionally reinforcing problem behaviors.

Some exceptional ABA providers naturally address emotions through regulating a child’s feelings. And staying in tune with the child, but the main purpose of ABA is to work on behavior—not emotion. Of course, emotions and behavior are connected, but they are not the same. Sometimes, children with autism experience adults in their world focused mainly on behavior. Emotions can get overlooked.

Child therapy and family therapy is one of the most evidenced-based approaches to help a child learn to cope with big emotions such as anxiety and anger.

Unfortunately, many traditional child-therapy techniques were not developed with child on the autism spectrum in mind. But many psychologists, including those at Simi Psychological Group, have a strong background in adapting therapeutic methods to meet the needs of children with autism.

When it may be time to seek therapeutic support for your child on the autism spectrum.

child in an orange tanktop looking up in the air

Put simply, if it feels that the behavioral support you have in place isn’t helping your child cope emotionally, it may be helpful to seek additional support.  

Oftentimes, it seems a child with autism is just being defiant. In fact however there is another underlying emotional struggle taking place. There are many indications this may be the case. For example, if your child continues to have big crying or anger episodes for seemingly “small” triggers, this may indicate they need more support learning to manage these feelings. Similarly, many children with autism are very anxious. This can lead to withdrawal, refusal to participate in particular activities, or avoidance of social situations. Learning to recognize anxiety and ways to cope with it can be very helpful. This can help children build confidence in facing previously anxiety-provoking situations.

In child therapy at Simi Psychological Group, we work with children with autism and their families recognize underlying emotions that may be interfering in their lives. By addressing the emotion and not just the behavior, both parents and children begin to feel more confident in addressing many different emotionally triggering situations.

Why is it important?

As mentioned earlier, children on the autism spectrum learn differently. One of many ways this occurs, is in learning to respond to their internal world. Even things like feeling hungry, tired, or hot can be difficult for some children with autism to identify. Well, identifying more complicated feelings such as sad, nervous, or frustration, can be even more difficult. By learning tools to help be more in-tune with their internal world, these children can start being more communicative with others about what is going on for them. They are able to start learning tools to help cope with these feelings and ultimately, they are able to feel more successful in situations where those feelings are occurring.

During child therapy in Simi Valley, Ca we help children with autism explore ways to communicate their feelings. It can be such a powerful shift when a child with autism learns to say “I’m angry right now.” This can lead to adults in their life to support them in managing the feeling vs. overly focusing on getting a child to complete a task. 

As a child learns to communicate their feelings, and as parents learn to validate and support them through those feelings, day-to-day tasks can start feeling less overwhelming.

As a parent, it can be invaluable to learn how to address and support your child’s emotional development. This can then help you advocate for your child in a different way. For example, you can help providers working with your child learn ways you’ve discovered to help your child regulate emotionally, or feel more confident facing a difficult situation.

How do we work on emotions with children on the autism spectrum?

You may be thinking ‘my child already has such a hard time having a regular conversation, now you want him to talk about emotions?’ Well, yes and no. Talking is certainly a part of therapy, but it is not the only way to help a child learn tools and build emotional awareness.

First, it’s important to realize all children are different. What one child responds to may not be as effective with another child. However, there are many things that often help a child with autism engage and understand the goals of therapy.

At Simi Psychological Group, we keep some key principles in mind when working with children with autism. 

For any child in therapy, nothing is more important than motivation and buy-in. Starting therapy with the goal of building a connection, sense of fun, and feeling supported is a necessary key in making therapy effective. 

From there, continuing to work from what motivates the child can help incorporate therapy goals in a way that doesn’t feel like a “lesson” but actually feels engaging and rewarding. Using preferred characters to role-play common situations, modeling emotions and coping by both the parent and therapist, and using visuals to help reinforce the concepts being addressed, are just some of the ways to make therapy accessible for children with autism. 

Another key component is finding ways to practice these concepts outside of the office. We work with parents and kids to come up with creative and specific “challenges” to focus on during the week that can help children with autism transfer what they’re learning in therapy into their everyday lives.

The value of collaboration.

I hope this blog is not coming across as ABA or other services aren’t important and only psychotherapy is important. Of course not! All of these services can be so important in helping a child with autism. Oftentimes, the greater the collaboration between a child’s providers, the more benefit we see.

As a child and family psychologist, what I do is very different from ABA. Knowing that, I often refer my clients with autism to ABA providers knowing that this is a valuable service. When we work together, it can be really amazing to see the benefit to the child and the family. 

Starting therapy for your child does not mean starting over. Instead, it’s adding an often-overlooked component to the team you’ve built for your child. 

At Simi Psychological Group, we strive to connect with the teachers and providers already working with your child to best incorporate what is already working as well as provide insight as to what we are working on during our sessions.

If your child with autism struggles with managing big emotions, considering therapy with a psychologist skilled in working with children with autism can be an empowering journey. At Simi Psychological Group, we are here to help! 

About the author,

John Danial, Ph.D.

psychologist Simi Valley ca

I specialize in working with Autism Spectrum Disorder, Anxiety, Defiant behaviors, and Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) and in helping children and adolescents build confidence and strength to live their lives to their true potential. I believe that each child is unique and has the inner strength to fight through their obstacles with the support of their loved ones. So they never have to experience feeling “less than” or being labeled as “different” or “difficult.”

Offering Neuropsychological Testing for children on the autism spectrum. Now offering online therapy in California