Emotional Regulation and High Functioning Autism

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I heard the screaming as soon as I opened the main door to the building.  I began to walk down the hall and as I neared the office doorway I realized, “That’s Catelyn.”

I looked inside the door and saw her in the corner pulling at her hair.  Her face was red and scrunched up.  There were tears streaming down her face.  She was yelling, “THE WHOLE DAY IS RUINED!” and “TODAY IS THE WORST DAY EVER!”

Catelyn’s therapist was with her, consoling her.  “I disagree, Catelyln.  It was a bad moment but you had a really great day.”  Every word the therapist said sent Catelyn into another hair pulling rage.  Her therapist saw me and came to me.

Catelyn was in a week-long, all day social skills therapy group run by her therapist.  Even though they were only on day 3 at the time, I noticed a lot of improvement in Cate at home.  She was more aware of herself during interactions and had said, “I’m sorry” to me, all on her own.

Catelyn’s therapist came to me and let me know Catelyn was having a really great day.  At the end of the day, it was time to clean up.  Catelyn would not clean up, so Catelyn did not earn her 10th star for the day.  It was then that Catelyn broke down and had been in a meltdown ever since.

At that moment, another little boy threw a ball at the ground.  It ricocheted and hit the ceiling, knocking a tile out-of-place.  The boy reacted and took off.  The therapist fled to assist the aid bringing the boy back into the room.  Once settled, I went over to Cate.

“Let’s go clean up,” I tell her.

Catelyn walked with me, over to the trains I was told she was playing with.  She was still crying and moving largely.  Sweeping arms, sweeping legs, head falling from side to side with each step.  She flopped to the ground, and watched as I and another aid cleaned up her train mess.

Emotional Regulation

In the past, I would’ve scolded Cate in that situation.  I would’ve told her to pick up her toys, or else.  Not only would she lose the star, but she would get a significant time out in her room when we got home.  I would ignore her tantrum and I would react emotionally:  I would get mad at her.

Six months ago, I saw Catelyn get depressed.  I saw she was feeling out of control and I didn’t know how to help her, so I reached out.  Once I learned she was experiencing High Functioning Autism, I hit the research trail.  I found this excellent resource that I am still consulting and can be found online, here.


In the book I came across the following passage, which seemed as if I was reading the above event with Catelyn on paper:

“Although not universal, it is common for people with ASD also to have difficulty regulating their emotions. This can take the form of “immature” behavior such as crying in class or verbal outbursts that seem inappropriate to those around them. The individual with ASD might also be disruptive and physically aggressive at times, making social relationships still more difficult. They have a tendency to “lose control,” particularly when they’re in a strange or overwhelming environment, or when angry and frustrated. They may at times break things, attack others, or hurt themselves. In their frustration, some bang their heads, pull their hair, or bite their arms.”


Catelyn has a hard time not crying at school.  Her crying in the classroom was recently described to me as attempts at manipulation.  I am learning about HFA and do not think Catelyn was trying to be manipulative.  Is the crying maladaptive?  Yes.  Is Catelyn trying to control a situation with tears?  No.  Maybe it appears that way to an outsiders eye, but that is not what is happening.

Autism is an invisible special need.  You cannot look at a person and know what they are experiencing.  High Functioning Autism, or Asperger’s, can be even harder to see, it is ghost-like.  To an outsider’s eye you will not recognize any kind of special need.  If a negative event happens, the outsider will see a bad child demonstrating bad behavior.

Catelyn is not trying to be bad.  Her experiences are different than mine.

She continues to learn more healthy adaptive behaviors in therapy.   She is learning other things she can do besides scream, cry and pull her hair.  She will figure it out.  In the meantime I will be her parental advocate, learning about autism in all it’s forms in order to help Catelyn and others understand Cate.

photo credit: JoeBenjamin N00/25132369305″>calling a wahmbulance via photopin (license)



6 thoughts on “Emotional Regulation and High Functioning Autism

  1. Anyone who witnesses a break down of this nature will think the obvious “she is a spoiled child, who did not get her way”! How wrong they are. This conclusion is not fair to her or any of her supporting teachers/ parents. Everyone here is doing the best they can with a situation that sucks!

    Keep up the work of educating other people about the various mental health issues you learn about and experience!

  2. So happy to have found this blog! The fact that Asperger’s syndrome is like a ‘ghost’ is exactly what I feel. My youngest son has it and anyone watching him would think that he’s just peculiar. Thank you for writing. I’ll be reading more and possibly reblogging.

  3. The meltdowns, especially in public situations used to be really hard for me until I understood why Tyson was acting the way he does. Sometimes I am able to help him and other times, it just has to run its course. Until someone has truly been with people who live with ASD daily, they can never fully understand. Keep doing what you do Robyn. You are an inspiration to me and an encourager that I am not alone in this. Blessings to you and your family.

    1. I agree – I used to counsel families who were faced with special needs. Until I lived the life, I had no idea the stress the family faced 24/7. I would also get frustrated with Declan when he would meltdown in public before I realized what was happening with him. Thank you so much for your kind words! Blessings to you and your family as well!

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