Affective Education: Teaching Children on the Autism Spectrum About Emotions

Does your child have difficulty expressing troubling emotions using his or her words rather than acting-out? Does your child seem to lack an understanding about the emotions of other people? If so, here are some ways to educate your child on the subject:

The main goal of Affective Education is to teach children with ASD level 1, or High-Functioning Autism (HFA), why they have emotions, their use and misuse, and the identification of different levels of expression. A basic principle is to explore one emotion at a time as a theme for a project.

The choice of which emotion to start with is decided by the parent (or teacher), but 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, but 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).

The content of the scrapbook also can include sensations that may elicit the feeling of happiness or pleasure (e.g., aromas and textures), and/or can be used as a diary to include compliments, and records of achievement (e.g., certificates and memorabilia).
==> Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management to Children and Teens with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

Affective Education includes the parent describing - and the child discovering - the relevant cues that indicate a particular level of emotional expression in facial expression, tone of voice, body language, and context. The face can be described as an “information center” for emotions.

The typical errors that children with HFA make when trying to comprehend emotions include not identifying which cues are relevant or redundant, and misinterpreting cues. The parent can use a range of games 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 an individual is angry).

Once the key elements that indicate a particular emotion have been identified, it’s important to use an “instrument” to measure the degree of intensity. The parent can construct a model “thermometer,” “gauge,” or volume control, and can use a range of activities to define the level of expression (e.g., the parent can create a selection of pictures of happy faces and place each picture at the appropriate point on the instrument).

Some kids on the spectrum can use extreme statements (e.g., “I am going to kill myself”) to express a level of emotion that would be more moderately expressed by a “non-autistic” child. During a program of Affective Education, the parent often has to increase the child’s vocabulary of emotional expression to ensure precision and accuracy.

Affective Education not only includes activities to detect specific degrees of emotion in others - but also in oneself. The child (and those who know him well) can create a list of his physical, cognitive, and behavioral cues that indicate his increase in emotional arousal. The degree of expression can be measured using one of the special instruments mentioned earlier (e.g., an 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.
==> Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management to Children and Teens with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

When a particular emotion and the levels of expression are understood, the next part of Affective Education can be to use the same procedures for a contrasting emotion. For example, after exploring happiness, the next emotion explored might be sadness. Feeling relaxed would be explored before a project on feeling anxious. In addition, the child should be encouraged to understand that certain thoughts or emotions are “antidotes” to other feelings (e.g., some strategies or activities associated with feeling happy may be used to counteract feeling sad).

Many children with HFA have considerable difficulty translating their feelings into conversational words. The parent can create “comic strip conversations” that use figures with speech and thought bubbles (e.g., a cartoon of an angry boy who is thinking to himself, “I’m really upset right now”).

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.

Another activity called “Guess the Message” can include the presentation of specific cues to indicate doubt (e.g., a raised eyebrow), surprise (e.g., wide-opened mouth and eyes), disgust (e.g., crinkled nose with tongue sticking out), and so on.

Lastly, it’s important to incorporate the child’s special interest in the program (e.g., a child whose special interest is the weather and has suggested that his emotions are expressed as a weather report). 

Resources for parents of children and teens on the autism spectrum:

==> Videos for Parents of Children and Teens with ASD

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