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Helping Children With Autism Develop Emotional Understanding

Updated on March 12, 2019
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Claire studied autism, childhood and psychology at The Open University and has 20 years experience caring for children with special needs.

Children with autism may have difficulty expressing, recognising and interpreting emotions. They can have difficulty noticing and distinguishing other people’s facial expressions from as well as in understanding their body language, tone of voice and gestures. Some children may not use these skills in their own communications or have limited use and this can lead to them finding it hard to express and explain their own feelings.

There are many ways to help children with autism learn to not only recognise and be able to verbalise their own feelings but to gain more ability to understand how other people feel and the reasons why they feel that way. Learning these skills will enable them to have a better understanding of other people’s reactions and to react in the most appropriate way to them and everyday situations.

Pictures showing emotions do not need to be detailed or even realistic to help children with autism in learning to recognise emotions.
Pictures showing emotions do not need to be detailed or even realistic to help children with autism in learning to recognise emotions. | Source

Some useful strategies that can be used to help develop emotional understanding are:

  1. Explain how you are feeling and why when the opportunity arises. If you feel happy, tell the child ‘I am feeling happy today because…..’ Talk about how you look such as ‘I am smiling because I feel happy today’

  2. When the child shows emotions, name them. Describe how the child looks, for example ‘I can see that you are happy today because you are smiling’ or ‘you look like you are feeling sad, did something happen that you did not like?’

  3. Point out how other people are feeling. This can be especially useful if the feelings are related to the child you are teaching. Phrases such as ‘I think …… is feeling happy because you were kind and shared your sweets with her’ can help illustrate how people’s emotions can change and be related to events around them. If the child does something that upsets someone else talk this through with them to help them connect the event with the other child’s feelings.

  4. Use photographs and pictures in books and magazines to discuss emotions. Talk about the context of the picture and what could be happening. Point out facial expressions and body language and explain what these can mean in relation to how the person is feeling and how they help a person to express their emotions to others.

  5. Make lists or draw pictures of what makes you happy/sad/angry/scared etc. and then look at them together. This can help to link events to feelings and also illustrate that different people can feel differently about the same thing.

  6. Set up an activity during which the child can ask others how they are feeling or how they feel about certain things. For example, a table listing different food items could be created and then the child with autism can ask friends, family or classmates whether they like them or not and record the number of yes and no answers in the table. Afterwards you could have a group discussion on what people like and dislike about the foods such as taste or texture.

  7. Create an emotions album with pictures and photos of people showing different emotions and the facial expressions, body language and gestures associated with them. Children can look through magazines or online picture galleries and pick out pictures they believe fit the emotions. Pictures could be stuck down on the pages of a book or stored in folders. The album can be used in activity 4 above as well as being an activity in itself.

  8. Social stories can be used to describe emotions, how people feel and what they may do when experiencing different emotions. Social stories describe a social situation, skill or concept in a way that makes them easier for someone with autism to understand.

  9. Use pictures and photographs of events to explain what is expected in certain situations. For example a picture of a child receiving gifts at their birthday party could be used to discuss how the child feels about the party and receiving the gifts, how the child with autism felt when this happened to them and also how other people expect them to react i.e. how to act if they have to wait to open gifts or of they feel disappointed by a gift.

  10. Practice two way conversations based on emotions and feeling using role play or drawings. You and the child can act out a scenario in which you display an emotion and they respond to you in an appropriate way either using a script or if they are capable from their own memory. Strips of paper with responses written on can also be used as a half way measure in which the child needs to choose the one they feel is most appropriate. For example, if you were looking sad and holding a broken toy the correct response would be say something like: ‘Oh no, your toy has broken and ii has made you feel sad’ or ‘You look sad. Is it because your toy has broken?’ Cartoon strip style drawings could also be used in this way with blank speech bubbles that the child can fill in, again either from their own ideas or from a choice of included responses.

Photographs with clear faces and expressions can be a useful tool in helping children with autism understand others emotions.
Photographs with clear faces and expressions can be a useful tool in helping children with autism understand others emotions. | Source

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

© 2013 Claire


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