Teaching People With Autism About Feelings And Emotions

Teaching People With Autism About Feelings And Emotions

How can you help people with autism NAME and UNDERSTAND their emotions and those of others?

One personal frustration I have is that too often we use still images of a smiley face or sad face to teach vocabulary for emotions.  I would argue that a smile does not always mean that someone is happy. It may be that they are holding back anger, conniving a mischievous plan or pretending to be friendly.

The best way to teach emotions is to use ‘real time’ teaching moments.

When you are experiencing an emotion, name it and explain how you know what you feel. I know, its sounds weird and maybe corny, but, the truth is that our emotional knowledge is like a well-kept secret from those whose brains are wired differently.

Talk about what you feel.

I don’t mean that you should be complaining or become self absorbed with all bodily aches and pains. Think of it as opening up your mental world so that people can know what you know. For example, I might share that I feel nervous and that I notice that my stomach feels as if there were butterflies in it. (Must admit that this may seem kind of freaky to someone with autism!). I might also express openly that my tightened chest and arms, increased heart rate and flushed face are signs of my feelings of anger or frustration.

How do you ‘know’ when you feel embarrassed? Deeply hurt? Frightened or anxious? What signals does your body give you? Be open about how you ‘know’ what you feel. Make explicit what is usually implicit or unspoken.

“I feel nervous about this interview. I know I am nervous because I don’t feel like eating, my breathing is shallow and I feel a little jittery. I cannot think about anything else right now.”

When emotions are communicated more directly, people with autism are much more likely to feel empathy and compassion for others. The earlier in a person’s life we start to ‘unmask’ what is hidden in our minds, the more capable and competent that person will become in recognizing, naming and expressing what is in their own hearts and minds.
Another very helpful way to expand emotional vocabulary is to use photographs and movies or TV commercials (in the pause position). The context often offers important clues as to what a person feels.

Here are some ways to start a meaningful conversation

A photo of a girl holding a trophy and smiling is a great start for talking about what she feels and why. Pausing a movie at a point where a character is expressing an emotion through facial expression or body language is a great starting point for discussion.

Remember you are coaching a person in emotional awareness discussion matters more than right and wrong answers. Helping them to recognize the signals that their own bodies send them and then naming those feelings can be a huge step towards emotional awareness and emotional intelligence.

Just remember, worksheets don’t teach emotions – real time interactions do. 😊


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