new study by researchers at the University of Kent finds that adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) can recognize complex emotions, like regret and relief, as easily as everybody else. Researchers used eye-tracking technology to monitor participants as they read stories in which a character made a decision and then experienced a positive or negative outcome. The researchers found that the participants were able to think about how the story might have turned out differently and then judge whether the character would feel regret or relief.

Professor Heather Ferguson, the study’s lead author, said that despite previous research highlighting the difficulties adults with autism experience with empathy and perspective-taking, this study shows previously overlooked strengths among this population.

“The participants in this study present with less severe forms of autism,” says The Center for Discovery’s Head of Psychology, Johanna Lantz. “Unfortunately, those with more severe and complex forms of autism are under-represented in research. We are determined to fill this gap.“

Most of the students and residents at The Center for Discovery have difficulty communicating understanding of emotion in themselves and others. But research using physiological sensors at TCFD’s Discovery Lab School, does show that the students are sensitive to how others around them are reacting to their environment. This is often referred to as co-regulation. “For example, when a student is having an emotional response,” says Lantz, “we often see a concurrent increase in physiological activity indicative of stress or an emotional response in other students who are nearby. This suggests that even in those with more severe forms of autism, the ability to perceive changing emotional states is present even when there isn’t the ability to explain the emotion. The fact that we see mirroring of physiological responses could be seen as a biological indicator of empathy.”

One of the pillars of TCFD’s core HealthE6™ educational framework is Emotional Regulation. “The Zones of Regulation program is one tool we use to help our students and residents better understand and communicate their emotions and those of others,” says Lantz. The Zones program ties emotions to four colors from feeling low energy to feeling out of control. Students and residents work on identifying what “zone” they are in throughout the day. There are individualized coping strategies to use for each zone such as taking a deep breath, asking for a break away from others, or counting to 10. “Our clinicians, behavior specialists, and teachers have adapted the Zones program so that it is accessible to those at all language and cognitive abilities. It is implemented in all settings, which helps to enhance understanding and promotes generalization.”

The other major components of the HealthE6™ program are environment, eating and nutrition, energy regulation, evidence-based approaches, and education.

Written by Johanna Lantz, Ph.D., BCBA, Chief of Psychology at The Center for Discovery.

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