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Tips For Helping Your Autistic Child Understand Emotions

written by: Michelle Blessing • edited by: Donna Cosmato • updated: 9/11/2012

Many autistic children struggle to understand their own and other people's emotions. Teaching feelings to autistic children is important in the development of communication and social skills. Learning how to identify their own and other people's emotions will ensure an autistic child's success.

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    Struggle to Identify Emotions

    Autistic Child 

    Many children with autism do not possess what is known as “theory of mind”. Theory of mind is the ability to understand what other people are feeling or thinking in a certain situation. Reading facial cues and body language is part of this ability. Autistic children tend to take and interpret situations literally, which means they can come across as blunt and coarse at times. This is not intentional; this is a result of misunderstanding cues that come naturally to most other people.

    For this reason, these children will not understand how another person feels and may react in an inappropriate manner. For example, if a child falls and skins his or her knee, he or she might begin to cry. The common response would be for an individual to comfort the child until he or she feels better. However, an autistic child may simply go over and ask the child to begin playing again because he or she does not understand the tears mean that the other child is upset and sad. This can lead to social ostracization and other problems for autistic children.

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    Ways to Teach Emotions

    Photos

    Many autistic children do well with visual representations of emotions, so this is one effective way of teaching feelings. Pictures of faces can assist these children in learning what each emotion looks like. This is especially important for autistic children as they typically do not understand how to read visual cues such as a raised eyebrow or turned-down lip. You may have better success teaching feelings to autistic children if you use photographs of faces rather than drawings as many of these children need more realistic portrayals to transfer their knowledge to real-life experiences.

    Take pictures of yourself making the faces for simple emotions such as happy, sad and angry. Show the photos to the child and ask him or her to identify the emotion.

    If he or she cannot, give the emotion a name (it can be helpful to have the name of the emotion written on a separate piece of paper for more visual help). Explain to the child what the emotion means in simple but concrete terms by giving real-life examples of times the child may have felt this way recently.

    For example, if you are teaching about the emotion of being sad, you can tell the child sad means when you are upset or feel badly about something. Give an example of the last time the child felt sad such as when he couldn’t watch his favorite television show or his friend needed to go home after a play date. Continue to add additional, more complex feelings as your autistic child learns the simple emotions.

    Social Stories

    Social stories, which were pioneered by Carol Gray, are an excellent way to teach autistic children about feelings. These stories can be used for almost any social situation from going to the doctor and grocery store to acting appropriately in church.

    Social stories give pictorial representations of the ways to act during a particular situation. It is one way to prepare a child for certain social situations and the emotions that situation might invoke. For example, you can show him or her a social story about a child who loses a favorite toy and demonstrate the emotion of sadness. This helps the child learn about how to react and respond to the situation as well, since the story will give a depiction of the appropriate response.

    Social stories can also be created and personalized to help children understand a specific situation such as going on vacation or traveling to grandma’s house. Parents or other caretakers can create a story with real-life pictures to help prepare the child for the situation and the emotions that follow.

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    Teaching Tips

    • Remember that your child may need several lessons to begin to understand a specific emotion. Start slow by focusing on one feeling, and add others as you notice your child beginning to incorporate understanding of that emotion in his life.
    • Use real-life examples whenever possible, and turn social situations into teaching moments about feelings. For example, if you notice a child smiling and laughing in the grocery store, ask your child how you think that child is feeling. Explain to your child that smiles and giggles mean the child is happy (or vice-versa as tears and frowns mean he is sad).
    • Avoid complicated explanations and stick to simple terms and explanations until your child demonstrates competency in the identification of simple emotions. You need to teach "happy" in order for a child to understand excitement, for example.
    • Create a picture book of real-life faces for your child to use if she or he is non-verbal. This will give him or her a way to express emotions to you.

    Source: Author's Personal Experience

    Image Credits: iStockphoto