How autistic children learn to control their emotions

Children with autism spectrum disorder often suffer from social and mental health problems. PhD research by Lucinda Pouw (Developmental and Educational Psychology) has shown that how they deal with their emotions is an important factor. PhD defence 14 January.

Emotion regulation related to social and mental health problems

In the course of her PhD research, Pouw investigated various aspects of emotion regulation in children aged 9 to 15, with and without autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Her research shows that the way children with ASD regulate their emotions sometimes has unexpected links with social and mental health problems such as depression and aggression.

Emotions of others are unpredictable

The results were particularly interesting with respect to empathy. The dominant view is that children with ASD are less impacted by the emotions of others. However, Pouw shows that these children are just as moved by the emotions of others as typically developing children. On the other hand, her research showed that children with ASD are less able to understand the causes of another person’s emotions and they are less able to put themselves in another person’s shoes. ‘As a result, the emotions of others are unpredictable for children with ASD and they do not always react appropriately,’ says Pouw. This lack of understanding in social situations creates feelings of frustration which may in turn lead to aggression.

Avoidance seems to be effective

Pouw’s research shows that children with ASD experience more feelings of depression than their typically developing peers. She investigated which aspects of emotion regulation play a role in this respect. ‘We see that children with ASD who have developed an avoidance strategy for dealing with negative emotions experience fewer symptoms of depression. For these children, avoidance seems to be an effective way of dealing with problems. But if they continue to avoid difficult social situations, they do not develop any strategies for actually addressing the problems. In addition, they tend to retreat more and more from the social environment. This is therefore not a good long-term strategy.’

Making the social world easier to understand

Pouw emphasises the need for understanding the behaviour of children with ASD. ‘This study contributes to our knowledge of why these children behave in the way they do. This provides us with a starting point to understand how we can help them to make the social world easier to understand.’

(14 January 2014)

See also

 'Health across the Human Life Cycle' is one of the six profile themes of research at Leiden University.

Studying in Leiden



Last Modified: 21-01-2014