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Aspergers, NLD, Triggers and Reactivity

aspergers, nld triggersOver the next three blogs, I’ll address three areas parents and adults need to understand in practical terms once they have an Aspergers or Nonverbal Learning Disability diagnosis: emotional reactivity, social challenges, and inflexibility. I’m addressing reactivity first, because emotional self-regulation underlies handling all other issues. 

Most of my Aspie/NLD clients have had issues with emotional control. Anger can seem to happen “out of the blue.” That’s not usually true; what is true is that a meltdown might not happen immediately after a triggering event.

Anyone parenting a child with AS / NLD or adult who has AS/NLD has to understand their specific triggers to “melting down” or getting upset. What constitutes a trigger? It depends on the individual. Some typical triggers include:

  • Social miscues: misreading events, getting negative feedback
  • Perceptions of social rejection or humiliation, social anxiety
  • Sense of failure
  • Family conflict
  • Demands for work that seem unachievable or unreasonable
  • Situations demanding flexible responding, changes in routine or expectations
  • Sensory overstimulation

The same triggers happen again and again. If you recognize a trigger, you can create a strategy for preparing for the situation, for dealing with it or for making an accommodation in order to avoid the trigger.

Getting stuck on anger or grudges continues to activate the brain in the same way as the triggering event itself. Stewing makes things worse and Aspies/people with NLD can tend to stew over the hurt or anger.

“Self-talk” is a cognitive technique that identifies a core issue or thought driving a feeling. These thoughts are often distortions of reality (i.e., something “always” happens). Awareness of this distortion allows one to “talk back” usefully. The only problem with self talk is that it requires the ability to think; when we’re too upset, none of us can think. The emotional part of the brain takes over and the thinking part of the brain is offline.

Calming is essential as a first step. It’s important to figure out what’s calming, which is different for all of us. Taking a break is a good first step, then breathing, relaxation, visualization, walking, journaling, drawing, a sensory tool, listening to music, exercise. Whatever works.

I’ve found teaching meditation to my patients with Asperger’s or NLD can be very helpful. Meditation is a proven, scientifically based tool for calming. Letting go of thoughts is part of the process and helps getting unstuck from perseveration and emotions.

Meditation is not magic and there’s no  one way to do it. There are three components:

  • Breathing
  • Doing some repetitive activity. It might be attention to the breath or sounds (mindfulness), repeating a word, phrase or counting, muscle relaxation, listening to a guided meditation, yoga, walking, running, knitting, or listening to soft music or recorded sounds. I’ve even meditated while rapidly walking listening to music with a repetitive beat.
  • Going back to focus on the activity when you realize you’re thinking

I had a patient who had been on strong medication and hospitalized once for his extreme overreactions to provocations from his family. When he meditated regularly he was able to stop all medications. When he got upset, he took a break to do his breathing technique. He could remember we had discussed his sister being very anxious. When she was upset, her comments were biting. His self talk was “It’s her problem, not mine.”

Finding a regular time is helpful; for children, bedtime is ideal. Guided meditation is an easy way to begin a meditation practice. There are many meditation apps for all ages and tastes; I suggest trying several to find one that fits. Great apps for young children are “Enchanted Meditations for Children” and “Smiling Mind.” For older children and adults, “Calm” is an app that has mediations as short as 2 minutes; “Guided Mind” also has meditations of different lengths. For those interested in mindfulness or influences of Buddhism, “Insight Timer” has bells to signal the beginning and end of mediation time, and many excellent guided meditations.

Angry kid photo available from Shutterstock

Aspergers, NLD, Triggers and Reactivity

Marcia Eckerd, Ph.D.

Psychologist since 1985, serving on CT ASD Advisory Council, Professional Board SmartkidswithLD

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APA Reference
Eckerd, M. (2016). Aspergers, NLD, Triggers and Reactivity. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 10, 2018, from


Last updated: 2 Apr 2016
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 2 Apr 2016
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