How to Help Your Child with Autism Understand their Emotions
By Mariel Spicer, BCBA
Four Important Tips
For children with autism, dealing with emotions is often very challenging. Many kids with autism perceive emotions as things that arise suddenly and with no warning. They may struggle to recognize their emotions and to link them to the events that have caused them. Children with autism also struggle to identify emotions expressed by others. To help your child with autism better handle their emotions, help them practice identifying emotions in other people, use social stories to help them identify their own emotions, teach coping skills and debrief after an emotional event.
1. Practice looking at facial expressions.
Before kids can understand emotions, they must first be able to recognize them. A good way to practice recognizing emotions is a procedure known as Discrete Trial Training (DTT).
With your child present, seated and engaged, make a facial expression that matches the emotion you’d like the child to label. Then ask, “How am I feeling?” If they answer correctly, provide reinforcement (like a sticker or a snack they really like) and use specific praise statements to let them know they identified the emotion correctly (e.g., “You’re right; I do feel sad!”). For more practice, you can even download these free emotions flashcards and use them for the DTT procedure outlined above.
2. Use social stories to teach children how emotions make you feel.
For kids with autism, the ability to identify an emotion based on facial expression isn’t enough; we also need to teach them how each emotion will make them feel. A social story is an individualized short story that describe a social situation. Social stories are helpful because they provide rules and traits that may present when they are feeling specific emotions. Social stories should be customized for each child’s unique needs. Click here for free social stories resources. A popular example of a social story is “Sometimes I Feel Green” by Lynn Hubbell.
“When I feel green, I am safe and calm.
When I feel green, I am friendly to others.
When I feel green, I follow directions right away.
My teacher and my friends like the way I act when I feel green.
Feeling green feels good.”
3. Teach coping skills and provide a safe space.
Dealing with emotions is a lot more than just identifying them—children with autism need to be provided with a variety of coping skills and a safe space to deal with emotions when they feel overwhelmed. Start by identifying things that seem to calm your child down; these could be a tight hug, playing with their favorite toy or going for a walk. Coping mechanisms vary widely and it’s important to make a list of things that seem to help your child calm down. Once you have this list, create a visual representation of each thing on the list and print it out. Check out this example.
When your child is experiencing overwhelming emotions, present their visual list and ask them to choose what they want to. It’s important to not only present the list but to model the coping mechanisms as well, then provide specific praise for using these coping skills: “You did a good job of walking away from what was upsetting you.”
4. Debrief after an emotional event.
Debriefing is an important step in helping children with autism understand their emotions. Wait until your child is calm and has been engaged in another activity for some time before starting to discuss their recent overwhelming emotions. If your child is very young, it may be helpful to debrief using a social story about how to deal with the emotion they experienced. Make sure that you customize the story based on your child by using examples they can relate to and understand. If your child is an intermediate or advanced learner, consider using a debriefing worksheet (like this example) to discuss what occurred, what happened to individuals around them based on their emotional state at that time, and what strategies might be helpful the next that that emotion occurs.
Learning to deal with emotions can be a difficult process for children with autism but these techniques can help. They’re part of a type of therapy known as Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), an intensive one-on-one therapy that helps kids with autism improve their language, communication and social skills and more!