How Do You Teach Emotion Concept to Children with Autism?

Children with autism learn most effectively when they are explicitly taught abstract concepts such as emotions.

Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) are often thought to have significant difficulty understanding the concept of emotions and their accompanying labels (e.g. happy, sad, angry). To be able to recognise and label the emotions aids in the development of social competencies typically lacking in children with ASD, such as forming friendships, understanding social norms and taking the perspective of others.

When teaching emotions to children with ASD, explicit instruction of the relevant vocabulary and their respective contexts are often necessary before a generative use for the label can be applied.

The explicit instruction procedure has two broad steps – to first identify the facial expressions of happy, sad and angry and then to identify the contexts or situations associated with happy, sad and angry.

Identifying Emotion Labels

We can effectively teach children with ASD the targeted vocabulary for emotions based on their public correlates, such as the facial expressions or outward displays of such emotions – for example, smiling face for ‘happy’, crying face for ‘sad’ and furrowed eyebrows for ‘angry’.

Left to right: Happy, sad, angry facial expressions

In the first instance, we can use picture cards (or realistic photographs if the child has difficulty understanding drawing) like the ones shown above to teach identification of the emotion labels.

We may begin the explicit teaching procedure with sorting picture cards of faces that show ‘happy’, ‘sad’ and ‘angry’. Multiple examples of each emotion label should be used as long as they retain the pertinent quality of the emotion.

The next step would be to work on the receptive understanding of the labels – at this stage the instructor would be asking the child to give or point to the picture card that shows ‘happy’, ‘sad’ or ‘angry’. The last step would be to present one picture card to the child, asking “How is he/she feeling?” – the child then would be expected to tact (label) the emotion shown.

The form of the tacting response depends on the child’s communication abilities. If they can communicate verbally, then they should be responding by saying either “happy”, “sad” or “angry” (or their word- or sound- approximations). However, if they cannot communicate verbally, then they should be using their Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AACs) (or sign language) to tact the emotion.

Identifying Contexts for Emotions

After the child has mastered identifying the target emotion labels, we can then teach the identification of contexts or situations associated with happy, sad and angry. Contextual information is crucial when we are decoding someone’s emotions.

Context often gives us a more accurate picture of what someone might be feeling compared to if we were to just look at their facial expressions in isolation. When first teaching association of contexts to emotion label, we can use a match-to-sample approach.

Contexts for “happy” emotion

For brevity, this article will outline the steps to teach only one context associated to the ‘happy’ emotion label but the logical sequences here can be used for other emotions as well.

The explicit teaching procedure is as such:

  1. Present one context associated with happy (e.g. boy having birthday party) alongside two distractor contexts that are familiar to the child on table (e.g. people waiting for the bus).

  2. Present ‘happy’ emotion picture card to child.

  3. Give the instruction, “Match the happy face with the boy having his birthday party.”

  4. Use the appropriate level of prompt to ensure successful matching of ‘happy’ to ‘boy having birthday party’.

  5. Provide praise feedback for correct response (e.g. “Good job, the boy is happy because he is having a birthday party!”)

After the child is independent in matching the emotion label to one context, move on to include at least 3 to 5 different contexts. The steps outlined above can also be used to teach “sad” and “angry”.

Concluding Remarks

To check for mastery of contextual understanding of emotions, present the child with a novel (i.e. unconditioned) situation, and ask the child to tact how the person in the photo is feeling. Another strategy to enhance the child’s learning would be to use contexts that are meaningful to the child – for example, if the child is happy when they get to play with bubbles, create a picture card showing a child playing with bubbles to teach contextual understanding of ‘happy’.

Teaching emotions can at first seem daunting because unlike other more concrete labels (e.g. common noun labels) it is hard to clearly define and hence identify. With proper scaffolds in the form using explicit instruction as laid out above, children with autism can also master the emotion vocabulary and their respective contexts.

Written by Jacelyn.


Conallen, K., & Reed, P. (2016). A teaching procedure to help children with autistic spectrum disorder to label emotions. Research In Autism Spectrum Disorders, 23, 63-72. doi: 10.1016/j.rasd.2015.11.006

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