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Comprehending Emotions in Others: Help for Kids on the Autism Spectrum

"How can I help my 5-year-old AS child (high functioning) to have a better understanding of other people’s feelings? He often seems oblivious to some of the hurtful things he says and does, but I don’t think he does this intentionally."

Recognizing and understanding the feelings and thoughts of self and others is often an area of weakness for kids with Asperger’s (AS) and High-Functioning Autism (HFA) – and is essential to successful social interactions.

“Neurotypicals” (i.e., children not on the autism spectrum) continually modify their behavior based on the non-verbal feedback they receive from others. For example, they may elaborate on a story if their friend is smiling, looking on intently, or showing other signs of genuine interest. Conversely, if the other person repeatedly looks at her school book, sighs, or looks otherwise disinterested, most neurotypical children notice this non-verbal cue and stop talking or cut the story short.

Kids with AS and HFA often have difficulty recognizing and understanding these non-verbal cues. Because of this, they are less able to modify their behavior to meet the emotional and cognitive needs of their peers.

When kids with AS and HFA appear rude, aloof or unresponsive, it doesn’t mean that they don’t experience any emotions, or that they don’t have empathy for others. However, they do tend to express their emotions differently than neurotypical kids do. Also, studies have shown that AS and HFA kids do not always recognize facial expressions, which is part of the difficulty in reading the emotional responses of others.

The most basic technique used to teach “feelings skills” involves showing the child pictures of people exhibiting various emotions. Pictures can range from showing basic emotions (e.g., happy, sad, angry, scared) to more complicated ones (e.g., embarrassed, ashamed, nervous). Begin by asking the youngster to point to an emotion (e.g., “point to happy”), then ask the youngster to identify what the character is feeling (e.g., “how is he feeling”).

Most AS and HFA kids will pick up the ability to identify emotions quite easily. When they do, it is time to move on to more advanced instructional techniques, such as teaching them to understand the meaning (or “why”) behind emotions. This requires the youngster to make inferences based on the context and cues provided in the picture (e.g., “based on the information in the picture, why is this little girl sad?”). The pictures should portray characters participating in various social situations and exhibiting various facial expressions or other nonverbal expressions of emotion. You can cut pictures out of magazines, or download and print them from the Internet. You can also use illustrations from kids’ books, which are usually rich in emotional content and contextual cues.

Once mastery is achieved on the pictures, you can move on to television programs or videos of social situations. Many of the programs that air on some of the kids’ channels are excellent resources for this teaching technique since they portray characters in social situations and display clear emotional expressions. You can use the same procedure as for the pictures, only this time the youngster is making inferences based on dynamic social cues. Simply ask the youngster to identify what the characters might be feeling – and why they may be feeling that way. If the scenario moves too quickly for the youngster, press pause, and ask the question with a still frame. 

Other ways to teach “feelings skills” include the following:

Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA): ABA therapy uses positive reinforcement to encourage desired behavior. ABA can also be used to teach an AS or HFA youngster about emotions by generally providing examples of appropriate emotional behavior for her to model, and then rewarding her when she gives the correct emotional responses.

Online Games: Most AS and HFA kids enjoy playing computer games, and these games can be an effective learning tool for teaching about emotions. The Internet has many games and activities to help these kids learn about emotions in a way that engages them.

Play therapy: Play therapy strategies can help AS and HFA kids emotionally connect with their mom, dad and siblings. The simple act of “child-led” play to teach new ideas is quite effective for kids on the spectrum.

Social Stories: Social stories help teach social skills to AS and HFA kids through stories that provide examples of common social situations. The stories outline how to respond to the situation. Stories about feelings and appropriate emotional responses can help the youngster learn how to understand emotions in context.

More resources for parents of children and teens with High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's:

==> How To Prevent Meltdowns and Tantrums In Children With High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's

==> Parenting System that Significantly Reduces Defiant Behavior in Teens with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism

==> Launching Adult Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism: Guide for Parents Who Want to Promote Self-Reliance

==> Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management to Children and Teens with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

==> Parenting Children and Teens with High-Functioning Autism: Comprehensive Handbook

==> Unraveling The Mystery Behind Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism: Audio Book

==> Parenting System that Reduces Problematic Behavior in Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism


  • Anonymous said... He is probably not thinking what he is saying is rude. My son is full of fun truths as he sees them. You have to help teach him what kinds of things are not "appropriate" to say, without making him feel he's done something bad because he probably really hasn't. It's just how he sees it. Just because something may be a fact doesn't make it ok to say to someone's face and that can be hard to manage. Danny has learned a lot but still hasn't gotten it all down yet, plus part of him lives the shock factor of it all.
  • Anonymous said... Just keep talking to him about it. That is what we do with our 8 year old. They do start to at least think about it but its not easy. We are thinking about getting a therapy dog. My son connects with animals and hope to be chosen to get a dog. On the bright side my son was able to form a friendship with a classmate and this year they have become best of friends. Unfortunately they maybe moving to Japan (Military family) in the fall. Secretly hoping orders fall through.

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