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How to teach Emotions to children with autism?

When it comes to emotional development, oftentimes, children with autism find it hard to: 1) identify emotions through facial expressions, 2) use emotions while being fully aware, 3) understand and self-regulate emotions.

Emotional development starts as early as one is born and before developing more complex emotions, such as feeling embarrassed, guilt, pride, and envy. We first develop the six basic emotions such as happiness, surprise, sadness, anger, fear, and disgust. According to Saari (2011), by twelve months, a typical infant should be able to discriminate facial expressions and increase coordination of expressive behaviours with emotions-eliciting situations. By two and a half years, a toddler should be aware and conscious of their own emotional responses and expressive behaviour with emotions like shame and pride. In addition, there should be an increase of verbal comprehension for affective states. Through childhood and adolescence, children will continue to build on empathy, self-regulation skills, and learning how to respond to other people’s feelings. Emotional development can help to cope effectively in particular circumstances, while promoting characteristics associated with positive developmental outcomes, including feelings of self-efficacy, prosocial behaviour and supportive relationships with family and peers. However, it may be slower to achieve for children with autism. When it comes to emotional development, oftentimes, they find it hard to identify emotions through facial expressions, use emotions while being fully aware, understand and self-regulate emotions.

Since emotional development plays a significant role in socialising and building relationships, which children with autism may struggle with, how then do we teach children with autism concepts of emotions, such as identifying emotions, recognising facial expressions, and the self regulating of emotions? Here, we will be exploring the possible ways to teach children with autism the necessary understanding of emotions.

To help children with autism understand emotions, visual support is most commonly used as a tool, also highly effective. This is especially when it comes to the basic step of understanding emotions, which is to label emotions in facial expressions correctly. Children with autism may find it hard to recognise facial expressions, but a study done in 2015 proved that they are able to differentiate emotions if there is enough help and practice. Some examples of visual support would be using emotion cards, videos, social stories, and zones of regulation charts.

  • Emotion Cards

Emotion cards are often used to teach the labelling of emotions. It is great for associating the facial expression to feeling a certain emotion. For example, when a picture of a person is smiling, they are feeling happy. When a picture of a person is crying, they are sad. If possible, emotion cards can also create discussion by showing people in real situations and activities with natural settings and contexts.This allows verbal communication about a different range of emotions, what may have caused them, and possible responses to these feelings. Practicing with Emotions Cards can help children learn the different facial expressions people may have, the emotion behind those expressions, and match a situation to a correct emotion.

  • Videos and Social stories

Videos and social stories help to promote generalisation of emotions into different situations as well. They are great for a deeper understanding of emotions. For example, showing a video or telling a story of scenes relatable to the children, such as playing bubbles at the playground, a boy falling down at the park, or children snatching toys from one another. All these scenarios not only spark imagination, but also increase the association of emotions with different environments and situations. Videos and social stories provide opportunities to learn how people react to different situations as well. Children can learn from seeing how certain emotions are expressed. For example, what happens when a girl receives her favourite doll on her birthday? Other than having smiles on her face, she might hug her parents and thank them.

  • Zones of Regulation chart and Emotion Thermometer

Zones of regulation charts are used to increase self-awareness and self-regulation of emotions. Children with autism may have difficulties expressing and communicating how they feel, oftentimes leading to emotional outbursts or meltdowns. To prevent it, self-regulation is an important skill which can be learned via this form of visual support. The zones of regulation chart can come in different forms but the underlying concept is similar. There are four zones that are distinguished by different colours. Red is identified as an extremely heightened state, such as feelings of anger, terror, and loss of control. Yellow is still a heightened state where feelings of frustration, worry, anxiousness, and excitement occur. Green is the calm state, where optimal learning occurs; therefore also the most encouraged. It pairs with feelings of being happy, calm, focused, and ready to learn. Lastly, blue is a low state where feelings of sadness, sickness, tiredness, and boredom are grouped together. The zones of regulation can help children with autism better identify emotions, communicate how they feel, and further learn how to cope with their feelings.

Another form would be using an emotional thermometer to measure and express how one is feeling. This is also distinguished by colours, but it also has numbers from one to five; one being the blue zone which is the low state and five being the red zone which is an extremely heightened state.

These can also be useful tools to teach and pair coping methods. For example, to take deep breaths and count to ten when one is at the red zone and feeling extremely angry. Using a variation of visual support would increase natural environment training where children can recognise and use emotions in real life scenarios. Additionally, another suggestion would be doing role-playing which promotes social interaction in real life settings. Skills such as awareness of the facial expressions, tone of voice, and body language would help greatly in recognising emotions. Similarly, these skills can also be taught together with visual support. It will be even more effective, fun, and engaging to learn when combining role-playing activity with visual support.

While these suggestions are not difficult to carry out to teach the concepts of emotion to children with autism, we must bear in mind that every child is different, that includes their learning progress. Some children can read so you might want to introduce words into the learning materials, while others learn better through videos or even role-play and acting.

I hope this article is able to spark off new ideas for teaching emotions to children with autism. With patience, consistency, and a passionate heart to help, I believe they can learn and succeed in their own ways!

Written by: Mabel.


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

Emotional development in children with autism spectrum disorder. (2017, January 31). Retrieved from

Hopper, D. (2018, March 6). Teaching Kids With Autism About Emotions & Self-Regulation. Retrieved from

Lewis, M. (2011, December). Emotions: Emotional Development in Childhood. Retrieved from

Salvatore, K. (2017, February 4). Helping Children with Autism to Communicate & Recognize Emotions. Retrieved from

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