• Autism Help UK

How do you teach autistic children about emotions?

Updated: Mar 25, 2021

There are lots of different emotions that help us express the way we are feeling. However, autistic children can struggle to understand these emotions in themselves and used by others. Here are a few ways you can teach emotions to your child.


understanding emotions autism

The Concern

We all have emotions and we can recognise them in others through their facial expressions, their tone of voice, and their body language. However, autistic children can struggle with this and recognising their own emotions. This can be challenging as they may not understand why they feel a certain way when a situation happens. This can cause them to react an inappropriate way, for example, if they feel angry they may become aggressive. This is why it is important to understand how to teach your child about emotions. Here are a few tips to help.


Tips To Help Understand Their Feelings

Here are a couple of ways you can teach your child about emotions they are feeling.


1. Tell Them

A way to help your child understand their own emotions is to tell them when they are using an emotion. For example, if you see your child is laughing, simply say "look your laughing, you must be happy". By doing this, it can help them link what they are feeling to an emotion. This will help them to become familiar with their own emotions.


2. Social Stories

Social stories are a great way to help your child understand what emotions link to certain situations. You can show your child different social stories for different emotions. This can then help them recognise what they are feeling when that situation happens. For example, you may show a social story about playing nicely in competitive games that explains emotions they may feel when they win/lose and how to act on those feelings. When your child goes to play a competitive game and they win/lose they can think back to the social story and understand how they are feeling and how to react.


Remember: It can take time for your child to act on what they have learnt from social stories, so be patient and go through the social stories a few times when needed.


Tips To Help Understand Others Feelings

Here are a few ways to help your child understand how others are feeling.


1. Facial Expressions

To help your child understand different facial expressions, it can be useful to use a face card game. All you need is some cards with different expressions on them (e.g. a card with a sad face, happy face, angry face) and some pictures. These could be random pictures online that show different emotions or some family photos. You show the picture to your child and ask them which emotion card matches the picture. For example, if there is a picture of people laughing, your child would show the happy card.


By using this game your child can start to understand what facial expression links to what emotion. You can start this off slow by just focusing on the five main emotions and then expand to other complex emotions as they learn.


Remember: Some autistic children can have trouble keeping eye contact. So try to encourage them to use eye contact and praise them when they do use eye contact.


2. Tone of Voice

Tones of voice can be tricky to understand as you can't use your sight to understand the emotion. It required your child to listen and understand the way the words are being said. A way to help your child understand different tones is through reading. Reading books can help your child to understand what different tones are used in life. You can use a range of different tones when reading a book, for example, using an excited tone when the character is excited for going to a party. This will help your child become familiar with tones.


When your child is ready you can re-read the same sentence a few times, using different tones, and see if your child can figure out which emotion links to the tone you are using. This can help your child to see that the words used don't necessarily show the emotion, it is the tone that expresses the emotion. You could even switch it up a bit and see if your child can read the sentence in a tone to express a certain emotion.


3. Body Language

A great way to show body language is to use the body language yourself! Play a game with your child where you use different body language, for example you can:

  • happy- smile and be open

  • sad- look at the floor with a frown

  • angry- fold your arms with a grumpy face

  • confused- scratch head

These are just a few body language positions you could use. Get your child to guess which emotion you are displaying for each body language position. When you feel they are confident with this, ask them to display body language for a certain emotion.


4. Movie and Series

Characters in movies or TV series will use facial expressions, tones, and body language to convey the emotions they are feeling to the audience. This is a great way for your child to see which emotions are used in different situations. When you see that a character on TV is showing a specific emotion, pause the TV and ask your child what emotion they think that character is displaying and why they think they are displaying that emotion.


Tip: When you start teaching your child about emotions, you may want to start off slow and tell them what emotion the character is using at first. Then, when you think they are ready, ask them what emotion they think the character is displaying and why.


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To learn how to explain each basic emotion to your child, have a look at our Basic Emotions and How To Explain Them blog. On this blog there are ideas for explaining the emotions happy, sad, anger, disgust, and fear to your child. It covers what poses, tones, facial expression, and situations you could use for each emotion.


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