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Affective Education: How to Teach Children on the Autism Spectrum About Emotions

Most children with Asperger’s and High-Functioning Autism (HFA) lack emotional intelligence to one degree or another. Emotional intelligence is the ability to (a) identify, assess, and control the emotions of oneself, of others, and of groups; (b) harness emotions to facilitate various cognitive activities (e.g., thinking and problem solving); (c) detect and decipher emotions in faces, pictures, voices, and cultural artifacts, including the ability to identify one's own emotions; (d) comprehend emotion language; and (e) appreciate complicated relationships among different emotions.

Emotional intelligence consists of four attributes:
  1. Social awareness: Understanding the emotions, needs, and concerns of other people, picking up on emotional cues, feeling comfortable socially, and recognizing the power dynamics in a group.
  2. Self-management: Being able to control impulsive feelings and behaviors, managing emotions in healthy ways, taking initiative, following through on commitments, and adapting to changing circumstances.
  3. Self-awareness: Recognizing one’s emotions and how they affect one’s thoughts and behavior, knowing one’s strengths and weaknesses, and having self-confidence.
  4. Relationship management: Knowing how to develop and maintain good relationships, communicate clearly, inspire and influence others, work well in a team, and manage conflict.

Affective education is basically teaching children with Asperger’s and HFA why they have emotions, their use and misuse, and the identification of different levels of expression. Some of the skills obtained through this form of education include (but are not limited to) the ability to use humor and play to deal with challenges, resolve conflicts positively and with confidence, recognize and manage one’s emotions, quickly reduce stress, and connect with others through nonverbal communication.

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

When parents or teachers begin the process of teaching the Asperger’s or HFA child about emotions, it’s best to explore one emotion at a time as a theme for a project. A useful starting point is happiness or pleasure. A scrapbook can be created that illustrates the emotion. This can include pictures of people expressing the different degrees of happiness or pleasure – and can be extended to pictures of objects and situations that have a personal association with the feeling (e.g., a photograph of a rare lizard for a child with a special interest in reptiles).

Another important component to affective education includes helping the child to identify the relevant cues that indicate a particular level of emotion in facial expression, tone of voice, body language, and context. The face is described as an information center for emotions. The typical errors experienced by children on the autism spectrum include not identifying which cues are relevant or redundant, and misinterpreting cues. Parents and teachers can use a range of games and resources to “spot the message” and explain the multiple meanings (e.g., a furrowed brow can mean anger or bewilderment, or may be a sign of aging skin; a loud voice does not automatically mean that a person is angry, etc.).

Once the key elements that indicate a particular emotion have been identified, it is important to measure the degree of intensity. Parents and teachers can create an “emotion thermometer” and use a range of activities to define the level of expression (e.g., use a selection of pictures of faces, and place each picture at the appropriate point on the “thermometer.”

But, keep in mind that some children on the autism spectrum can use extreme statements such as “I am going to kill myself” to express a level of emotion that would be more moderately expressed by a “typical” child. Therefore, you may need to increase your Asperger’s or HFA child’s vocabulary of emotional expression to ensure precision and accuracy.

Affective education can also include activities to detect specific degrees of emotion in others and in oneself using internal physiological cues, cognitive cues, and behavior. Both the parent and child can create a list of the child’s physiological, cognitive, and behavioral cues that indicate his increase in emotional arousal. The degree of expression can be measured using the “emotion thermometer.” One of the aspects of affective education is to help the child perceive his “early warning signals” that indicate emotional arousal that may need cognitive control.

When a particular emotion and the levels of expression are understood, the next component of affective education is to use the same procedures for a contrasting emotion (e.g., after exploring happiness, the next topic explored would be sadness; feeling relaxed would be explored before a project on feeling anxious, etc.). The child is encouraged to understand that certain thoughts or emotions are “antidotes” to other feelings (e.g., some activities associated with feeling happy may be used to counteract feeling sad).

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

Other activities to be considered in affective education are the creation of a photograph album that includes pictures of the child and family members expressing particular emotions, or video recordings of the child expressing her feelings in real-life situations. This can be particularly valuable to demonstrate the child’s behavior when expressing anger.

Lastly, it’s important to incorporate the child’s special interest in this educational process. For example, one teacher worked with an Asperger’s student whose special interest was the weather, so the teacher suggested that the student’s emotions be expressed as a weather report. A poster was created with a picture of a calm sunny day on the right side (representing happiness) and a picture of a tornado on the left side (representing rage). Various other pictures of weather patterns were place in between these two extremes to illustrate other more moderate emotions often experienced by the student.

In a nutshell, through the use of affective education, children with Asperger’s and HFA can begin the process of developing emotional intelligence. In an ideal world, the child will develop the following skills in the end:
  • Taking responsibility for his own emotions and happiness
  • Showing respect by respecting other people's feelings
  • Paying attention to non-verbal communication (e.g., watch faces, listen to tone of voice, take note of body language)
  • Looking for the humor or life lesson in a negative situation
  • Listening twice as much as she speaks
  • Learning to relax when his emotions are running high
  • Getting up and moving when she is feeling down
  • Examining his feelings rather than the actions or motives of others
  • Developing constructive coping skills for specific moods
  • Being honest with himself or herself
  • Avoiding people who don't respect his feelings 
  • Acknowledging her negative feelings, looking for their source, and coming up with a way to solve the underlying problem

==> Click here for more information on teaching social skills and emotion management...

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

NOTE: Below is a list of common emotions that can be incorporated into an affective education program. Each program should be tailored to the child’s specific needs.

•    Affection
•    Anger
•    Angst
•    Anguish
•    Annoyance
•    Anxiety
•    Apathy
•    Arousal
•    Awe
•    Boredom
•    Confidence
•    Contempt
•    Contentment
•    Courage
•    Curiosity
•    Depression
•    Desire
•    Despair
•    Disappointment
•    Disgust
•    Distrust
•    Dread
•    Ecstasy
•    Embarrassment
•    Envy
•    Euphoria
•    Excitement
•    Fear
•    Frustration
•    Gratitude
•    Grief
•    Guilt
•    Happiness
•    Hatred
•    Hope
•    Horror
•    Hostility
•    Hurt
•    Hysteria
•    Indifference
•    Interest
•    Jealousy
•    Joy
•    Loathing
•    Loneliness
•    Love
•    Lust
•    Outrage
•    Panic
•    Passion
•    Pity
•    Pleasure
•    Pride
•    Rage
•    Regret
•    Relief
•    Remorse
•    Sadness
•    Satisfaction
•    Self-confidence
•    Shame
•    Shock
•    Shyness
•    Sorrow
•    Suffering
•    Surprise
•    Trust
•    Wonder
•    Worry
•    Zeal
•    Zest

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