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Emotional regulation for autistic children

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Most parents of autistic children will know how confronting and challenging it can be for their son or daughter to regulate their emotions. Emotional regulation is the ability to cope with situations that may be stressful or frustrating.

Autistic children will want to interact with others but struggle to engage in or understand social experiences.

Latest statistics from the Australian Government (link opens in new window) show that one in 150 Australians are autistic with characteristics of the neurological disorder developing in the early years. Therapy support can help children improve emotional regulation, activities of daily living, communication and social skills.


Occupational Therapist Claire sits behind Imogen who is practising tying a shoe lace
Occupational therapy can support children to manage emotions

Kites Occupational Therapist Claire has been sharing the games she uses in her therapy sessions to help young children understand emotions. These activities include turn-taking and problem-solving.

Emoji dice

The emotional emoji dice game is a fun and engaging way of helping children to understand their feelings. In these sessions, Claire takes turns rolling a 20-sided (polyhedron) dice. Each side has an emoji expression embedded in it. When it lands on that emoji, it’s highlighting a feeling. The idea is to encourage conversations to make children aware of different emotional states.

Zone Bingo

Another game Claire uses is ‘Zone Bingo’ – part of the ‘Zones of Regulation’ curriculum. This game helps children with ASD distinguish between a wide spectrum of emotions, linking them to the four different coloured zones. Each zone represents a category of emotions.

Once the child can recognise emotions in others and themselves, they can then learn skills to regulate negative approaches to stressful situations.

Claire explains that some emotions are more familiar or simple to understand than others, for example: anger, happiness and sadness. It’s harder for children to understand complex feelings – such as frustration or boredom.

The aim is to show children they can move from one colour zone to another to put them in a more appropriate emotional state. For example, to be calm, alert and ready to learn when in a classroom at school.

What are the different zones?

The Green Zone

The Green Zone indicates the person is calm, relaxed, focussed, happy and content.

The Yellow Zone

The Yellow Zone suggests the child may be starting to feel uncomfortable and have a heightened sense of alertness, such as feeling overly excited or silly.

The Blue Zone

The Blue Zone indicates a child is feeling down, bored, sad, or unwell. Energy levels are low.

The Red Zone

The Red Zone demonstrates a heightened state of intense emotions. When a child reaches the Red Zone, they may feel anger, rage, devastation, or terror.

As Occupational Therapist Claire explains, these colour zones open up discussion to help children to communicate when they feel frustrated.

It prompts children to vocalise their thoughts, so they are better equipped to move from one state to another. I’ll talk to a child asking them what colour zone they’re experiencing and what might make them feel better.

Claire – Occupational Therapist

Tying shoelaces

Many children who are autistic have difficulties with planning and organising. This extends to everyday activities such as tying shoelaces. Putting shoes on and tying up laces can trigger anxiety and deep frustration because it’s perceived as too complex.

Tying shoelaces involves advanced fine motor skills, motor planning, coordination, visual motor integration and an ability to sequence the steps involved. A child can struggle further due to sensory processing differences such as poor tactile discrimination (the ability to tell what you’re touching) that can impact learning functional tasks.


Imogen holds up a shoe made out of strong cardboard with the shoe lace done up
Shoe tying is a basic life skill that can increase a child’s level of independence.

Claire explains why a simple goal of tying shoelaces can be empowering for autistic children.

Tying shoelaces is a practical, functional task that children do everyday and will boost confidence. It’s an activity that most youngsters want to achieve just like their peers.

Claire – Occupational Therapist

Claire uses video and a shoelace board to practice tasks and will forward the video to parents for them to incorporate at home.

“Each lace has a different colour to make it easier for children to understand the process.”

Through the introduction of games and activities, occupational therapists can work with children so they understand a broader range of emotions and what may trigger undesirable behaviour.

Do you want to learn more about how our Occupational Therapy team can help with emotional regulation for children?

How to get support

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