Teaching Emotional Awarness in Autism

By October 12, 2015Articles

Dr. Poirier discusses and shows how to help children  with autism develop emotional awarness.

Children with autism often have trouble recognizing emotions in themselves and in other people. They have trouble decoding complex emotions like pride and loneliness. They may also have trouble explaining the causes of emotions. This hurts their social-emotional development. It also often results in a narrower range of complex emotions than typically developing children enjoy.

Children with autism also tend to focus not on social meaning in a particular situation, but on specific details. When asked to describe an interaction, they tend to provide physical descriptions rather than the content of the social interaction. This reflects a poorer understanding of the social component than is expressed by most typical children.

Learning to understand emotions experienced and witnessed in social situations is a key development that affects a child’s mental and language development, health, and school readiness. This emotional understanding influences emotional intelligence.

To understand emotions, you have to be able to tell them apart. We adults do this by using “emotional scripts.” Each emotion has its own script that includes the trigger event, conscious feelings, a facial expression, vocalizing, action, physical reaction, and a label—all of which happen in a specific order. We learn to recognize emotions in other people by using these scripts. Kids have to learn the scripts from scratch, and we still don’t completely understand how they do it.

Teaching Emotional Understanding in Autism

Teach your child to read people’s faces and identify their emotions. Make the facial expressions for sad, happy, scared, and angry feelings. Describe what the facial features, such as eyebrows, forehead, mouth, and chin look like when people express emotion. Hold up a mirror in front of your child and have her imitate your facial expressions. Point out the facial clues your child is demonstrating, and then label the emotion she is conveying. Once you child is able to recognize facial expressions and pair them with emotions, start working on discussing actual situations that elicit those emotions. For example, when your child is smiling because she likes her ice cream, let her know that she is happy because she likes her treat.

Help your child to understand the connection between emotions and events that elicit them. When you observe your child demonstrating positive feelings (e.g., happy, excitement, surprise) or distress (e.g., sadness, anger, frustration, disappointment, fear, etc.), make a clear statement that identifies and connects the child’s emotion to its cause (e.g., “You’re very frustrated that Sam isn’t letting you play with his spaceship toy.”). Likewise, when you recognize a relevant opportunity to present your child with a personal example, announce your emotions and your reasons for experiencing them (e.g., “I’m so excited to go to the zoo with you today! It’s going to be so much fun!”)

Teach your child that feelings can and do change. When a child experiences distressing feelings, she does not comprehend that these feelings are only temporary—that they will eventually subside and evolve into relief or happiness. When your child understands that feelings constantly change, she will be able to cope with negative emotions more effectively. It’s important to never discourage your child from experiencing negative emotions. All emotions are appropriate to experience, and your child is learning what each emotion feels like, and what kinds of situations elicit each emotion. Rather, acknowledge your child’s emotion and its cause, and then gently remind her that she won’t be in permanent distress. Consider the following example. Instead of saying something like, “Don’t be sad that Eva left. We’re going to her house tomorrow,” you can take a more effective, teachable approach. Encourage her like this: “I know you’re sad right now because Eva had to leave, but you’ll see her again tomorrow. And you’ll be so happy to play with her tea set again, won’t you?” This example illustrates how you can give your child the hint that her sad feeling is only temporary, and it will likely change to a happy feeling when she sees her friend again in the future.

Children are initially quick to assume that everyone shares the same perspective than they do about an event. Teach your child that people can have same or different feelings about an event. She needs to understand that it is acceptable for two people to feel differently about something; this is the precursor to demonstrating empathy. For example, she might assume that every child enjoys riding a roller coaster as much as she does, when there are some children who are afraid of heights and do not like to play on roller coasters. Or that everyone wants to play the same game as she does, and any game choice she makes will be accepted by all the children she’s playing with. When children lack the ability to recognize that others feel differently about an event than they do, it can be perceived as “bossy” or egocentric, which can ultimately be an obstacle in making friends. If you teach your child to understand and recognize that people can and do have different feelings about things, she can respond appropriately to her peers.

Check out Dr. Karina Poirier’s social skills therapy clinic.

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Check out this lesson plan from the Poirier Social Potential Curriculum for more hands-on teaching experience.

Lesson: Anger


Everybody gets angry sometimes. It’s okay to feel angry, but it’s not okay to behave inappropriately because we are angry. Let’s talk about what anger means, what our faces and bodies do when we’re getting angry, and some situations that can cause us to feel angry.


We get a strong angry feeling by someone or something that causes us to be in a lot of pain. Feeling angry bothers our body; angry feelings can sometimes even make us feel sick.

Facial Expression and Body Language

You can tell when a person is angry by looking at his face and body, and also by listening to his voice. When we feel angry, our eyebrows squeeze together and go down. Our mouth can be tight or open, or we might even clench our jaw and grind our teeth. Sometimes we cross our arms or make fists with our hands when we’re angry. We might even squeeze our face with our hands or stomp our feet. Some people are very quiet when they’re angry, while others might raise their voices or scream. Angry feelings can be expressed in many different ways.

Story Illustration

Stella was walking through the grocery store with her mother when she found a box of cookies that looked delicious.

“Mom!” she said, pointing at the box. “Can we get these?

“No, we have enough snacks at home,” her mother said. Stella wouldn’t take “no” for an answer. She asked her mother for the cookies again, and again her mother refused. Stella stomped her foot on the ground angrily. She wanted the cookies, and she thought her mother was unfair for not buying them.

Story Discussion

What made Stella so angry?

Stella felt angry because she wanted to cookies, but her mother wouldn’t buy them.

How did Stella show her angry feeling?

She showed her angry feeling by stomping her foot on the ground. You can also see the anger in her face. Her eyebrows are down, her mouth is tight, and she also has her arms crossed. Stella’s cheeks are a little red.

Stella had a right to feel angry because all feelings are appropriate, but did she behave appropriately?

No. Of course, it was okay for Stella to have felt angry, but it was not okay for her to behave inappropriately. She shouldn’t have repeatedly asked her mother for the cookies or stomped on the ground in the grocery store.

Personal Examples and Application

I feel angry if someone grabs something from my hands. I don’t like it when people don’t ask me politely for something. When something is grabbed from my hands, I usually shout, “Hey!” My eyebrows go down, and my cheeks turn red. I clench my jaw and make fists with my hands.

How about you? Tell me something that makes you angry. How do your face and body show others that you’re angry?

Additional Practice

Story 1

Gavin and his friend, Nicholas got into an argument during recess. When Nicholas called Gavin a name, Gavin made a fist and punched Nicholas hard in the stomach. Nicholas ran away, sobbing in pain. Gavin’s teacher saw him hit Nicholas. The teacher made Gavin stay inside until recess was over.

Story 1 Discussion

Did Gavin have a right to feel angry with Nicholas?

Yes. Everyone has a right to feel angry.

How did Gavin show his angry feeling?

Gavin punched Nicholas in the stomach.

Was Gavin’s reaction appropriate?

No. It’s okay to feel angry, but it’s not okay to hit someone because you feel angry. Even though Gavin was angry, he shouldn’t have hit Nicholas.

Without emotional awareness, a child with autism often has difficulty identifying emotions, adjusting his or her own behaviors to respond appropriately to the emotional cues received from others, and forming lasting bonds with individuals. An inability to relate to and empathize with others has a negative impact on a child’s ability to make and keep friends. There is hope for a childhood and adulthood filled with close friends and positive social experiences for children with autism and related disorders. All that is required is an intervention that incorporates and emphasizes the development and application of emotional skills. Here at the Center for Social Cognition, we do just that.

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