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Emotions & ND

An emotion can be described as an automatic, subconscious (or non-conscious) reaction to something that happens. The basic emotions are joy, surprise, fear, disgust, anger, contempt, and sadness.

Emotions and feelings are closely related. Feelings can be described as a conscious reaction to an emotion, triggered by a situation or experience. For example, if a person feels threatened by something that they are seeing or a situation that they are uncomfortable in, they may experience fear

This video explains the different parts of our brain and what happens when we ‘flip our lid’. This is also described as being dysregulated. When we are dysregulated, it can be challenging to think rationally, explain things and reason with others/ourselves.

Emotions and ND

Neurodivergent individuals can often find it more challenging to regulate their emotions and keep their ‘lid on’. Identifying, understanding and managing emotions can be more challenging, as well as experiencing higher levels of daily overwhelm and subsequent fatigue. This can lead to reactions which seem sudden and extreme compared to the original event or cause. It can also be more challenging for neurodivergent individuals to re-regulate themselves and calm down.

‘Your amazing brain’ tells you more about how amazing your brain is and the changes that happen to your brain as you grow into an adult.

Illustration of routes in someones brain

Below is an extremely useful video called ‘Understanding emotions in autism.’ by Sheffield Children’s NHS Foundation Trust. It shows a picture of an iceberg to illustrate the difference between what people see (the tip of the iceberg), compared to what may be happening (under the surface). Although describing emotions for autistic people, the content of this video often applies to many neurodivergent children/young people, e.g., ADHD and DLD, or those without diagnoses.

What is Alexithymia?

I’m being tested for autism. I find it hard to control when I feel angry. I get wound up easily and I scream and hit out. It makes it worse if I get laughed at when I feel like this. I find it easier if they stop speaking and leave me alone while I try to control my feelings and calm down. I wish people understood that you cannot always control your anger.

Henry, 9

Support strategies for emotional dysregulation

Everyone is different; what works for some might not work for others and what works one day might not another. It is important to discover what works best for you/your child at different times. This may involve some trial and error and is likely to take time – it is important to go slow when introducing new habits and practices into your/your child’s life.

A helpful approach is often to build up a ‘resource bank’ of strategies that you/your child can use at different times. Some general support strategies are suggested below to get you started. You can also find out lots more information about supporting your/your child’s wider emotional wellbeing on the MindMate homepage .

General support strategies:

  • Time and space. Give the individual time and space to express how they are feeling. Also give them time and space to calm down when they’ve been upset or overwhelmed.
  • Reduce language. Talking a lot, asking questions and giving instructions to a neurodivergent individual who is dysregulated is likely to make them feel even more dysregulated. Use simple, short sentences, with lots of pauses in-between. It might be most helpful to not speak at all for a while but to stay with the individual to make sure they’re safe and they know you’re there for them when they need you.
  • Timing. Choose the right time to discuss feelings and emotions, i.e. when you/they are calm and feel ok to talk. Trying to discuss complex emotions when an individual is dysregulated will be extremely challenging and likely frustrating for them.
  • Don’t assume what someone is feeling. Their facial expression might not match your interpretation of their feelings and emotions inside.
  • Label your own feelings regularly for your child. Explain simply why you feel that way. Be sure to label the positive emotions as well as the negative ones.
  • Visual tools. Using visual tools such as pictures or objects that represent emotions (e.g. cushions or pebbles) may be helpful for some individuals. You/your child could decorate or label these items to represent different emotions in a way that’s meaningful to you/them e.g. colouring, decorating or adding stickers to pebbles to represent some key emotions.
  • Visual checklists for daily self-care activities may help individuals who don’t easily recognise the cues for some of these tasks e.g. brushing teeth or showering

Specific support approaches

The ‘Window of Tolerance’ model

The ‘Window of Tolerance’ model can be a really helpful way of assessing how we are feeling; it can help to acknowledge when we feel stressed and anxious and help to find ways to help us manage this stress.

Image to represent looking out a window. Outside of the window you can see a green field, green trees and the sun shining with clouds in the sky

The ‘Window of Tolerance’ refers to a state our nervous system can be in. Our nervous system is made up of our brain, spinal cord and all the nerves in the body. When our bodies are in the ‘Window of Tolerance’ state, we can deal with stressful experiences and intense emotions that happen in our everyday lives. We might feel stress, worry or pressure but it feels manageable.

Diagram to represent window of tolerance

Sometimes things in life can become too much for our nervous system to manage and we can shoot out of our windows, into hyperarousal and hypo arousal.

Diagram to represent window of tolerance

Links and resources you might find useful

Living with autism and alexithymia

Read Saffron’s experience

Read article on

Autism Level Up

Autism Level Up has lots of resources around identifying emotions using the concept of energy levels.

Visit Autism Level UP! website

Zones of Regulation

‘The Zones of Regulation’ is a helpful approach to understanding how you feel and to help self-regulate.

Visit The Zones of Regulation website

Blob Trees

Blob Tree pictures give a visual for children and young people to express how they are feeling.

Visit the Blob Tree website

Where do I feel my emotions in my body?

A worksheet to support understanding different emotions in our bodies produced by Oxford Health NHS

Get the worksheet