Helping Children with Autism Identify their Emotions
Understanding emotions is an integral part of our social interactions with others. Being able to identify our emotions allows us to express ourselves to others and regulate our emotions functionally. On the other hand, being able to recognise others’ emotions enables us to respond to others’ behaviours in a socially appropriate manner. As children with autism may have difficulties in identifying and communicating their emotions, this may result in tantrums, meltdowns, aggressive behaviours or withdrawal. Hence, here are some ways we can use to help them recognise their own emotions, and subsequently help them to manage these emotions (Davis-Pierre, 2022; Raising Children Network, 2022).
1. Educate them about the different types of emotions
Before helping children to identify their emotions, they have to be aware of the different types of emotions. Pictures or videos (real faces or cartoon images) of different types of emotions can be used to expose them to various emotions. It is important to start with basic emotions (e.g., happy, sad, angry, scared) before moving on to more complex age-appropropriate emotions (e.g., confused, embarrassed, disappointed). Facial expressions and physical symptoms for the different emotions can be highlighted to deepen their understanding. For example, when describing the feeling of anger to children, parents can point out that the eyebrows of the person are furrowed, their mouth in a straight line, their fists clenched and their heart beats faster. If possible, the different thoughts in the angry person’s mind can also be explained (e.g., “I don’t want to do this”, “this is so unfair”). Parents can act out these facial expressions and body language themselves and encourage the child to imitate them. This can be done in front of a mirror to allow the child to see their own expressions as well. As different individuals experience and express the same emotion differently, characteristics that are SPECIFIC to their child should be highlighted to help the child understand their OWN emotions.
The learning of emotions can be done through fun activities and games to increase their interests. For instance, activities such as drawing facial expressions and body language, or colouring the faces (e.g., red for angry, blue for sad) and games such as emotions bingo or emotions charades (i.e., making a facial expression for the other person to guess the emotion) can be done.
Additionally, understanding the intensity of emotions is also crucial. A ladder picture, thermometer picture, or Likert scale (1 to 5) can be used to help children describe their emotions more accurately. For instance, giving a 1 on the Likert scale means they are not sad, and a 5 means they are extremely sad.
Once they are able to label different emotions, social stories can be used to help them understand when they feel these emotions. These social stories can be personalised, according to what the child experiences in their daily life. This helps them be aware of the situations that may trigger certain emotions, which subsequently allows them to learn to manage these emotions when the situations arise.
2. Incorporate emotions in everyday life
Exposing children to emotions in everyday interactions helps them to generalise their knowledge of different emotions and their ability to recognise them in real life. For instance, parents can comment on emotions displayed by characters in TV or in books to their child and talk about why the characters are feeling that way. Parents can also explicitly label their own emotions and exaggerate their emotional responses. Besides that, parents can point out their child’s emotions even when their child is not verbally expressing their emotions but are showing behavioural cues for certain emotions. For example, if parents observe that their child is smiling and laughing, parents may point out to their child what they are feeling (e.g., they are feeling happy). By constantly identifying emotions in everyday life, it enhances their ability to recognise emotions in natural settings.
All in all, identifying our own emotions is the first step towards emotional regulation and maintaining positive social interactions with others. By constantly exposing them to the characteristics of different emotions in stories or in real life, we help to increase their awareness of their own emotions, which allows them to deal with these emotions appropriately. It is important to note that although children with autism may not verbally express their emotions, they do experience them, and we should check in with them regularly and validate their feelings.
Written by: Xiao Hui
Davis-Pierre, M. (April 7, 2022). Helping children with autism connect with emotions. Retrieved from https://www.pbs.org/parents/thrive/helping-children-with-autism-connect-with-emotions
Raising Children Network. (April 28, 2022). Recognising, understanding and managing emotions: autistic children and teenagers. Retrieved from https://raisingchildren.net.au/autism/development/social-emotional-development/recognising-understanding-emotions-autistic-children-teens