How to teach autistic students to communicate feelings

Children with autism often find it hard to recognize and control their emotion and struggle to communicate and express how they feel. And usually, parents misunderstood it as that an autistic child has no emotions or feelings which is actually far away from the truth.
In reality, an autistic child has as many emotions as anyone else. It’s just you need to work more on your child to help him learn how to recognize and process emotions and express his feeling. However, actually doing this is not as easy as it seems. You have to learn a lot about it, spend a whole lot of time with your autistic kid, and sometimes may need the help of experts as well. Our online Autism Social Network JuliasFriends can help you big time in doing so.

How to teach autistic students to communicate feelings

Children with autism spectrum disorder often experience difficulty recognizing facial expressions, the tone of voice and body language of other people. Therefore, the first step is to make them learn how to recognize, process and understand emotions then you can work on the communication part. So, here are the three simple real word tips that will help you teach your autistic child how to understand emotions:

Use emotion cards

Emotion cards is a great way of teaching your child basic emotions. These cards contain pictures of images, either real or cartoon, which help children with autism understand and identify basic feelings and emotions. These images are against a plain background and show the upper body and face which depicts the single emotions. You can teach basic emotions to your child using these images. Once your child starts recognizing six basic emotions- happiness, anger, sadness, surprise, fear, and disgust, you can proceed one step ahead and start teaching more complex feelings like pride, guilt, embarrassment, shame, and joy. It will help your child develop a thorough understanding of emotions.

Social stories

Social stories program works great for a few children while some seem to be least interested in these stories. Social stories program include narration of a story to an autistic child. Social stories are presented in a book and use photos or illustration to explain emotions. You can also use different tones of voice while narrating a story to a child to make him understand the emotion behind the sentence. You can learn more creative ideas of storytelling on our Autism Social Network, JuliasFriends.

Talk to your child in neutral times

It plays a very important role in teaching a child with autism about emotions. When you actually communicate with your child, he is more likely to learn about emotions and feeling from real life communication. Talk to your child in neutral times and guide them on how to control emotions in extreme situations. Encourage your child to speak and try to interact with your child so that he or she learn and gain experience from communication with you.

So these are the three simple tools to help your autistic child understand emotions. You can learn more about it by joining JuliasFriends, an autism social network for families.

In my previous blog (Click here) I illustrated how a parent can help their ASD teenage son or daughter learn effective ways to recognize and communicate emotions. I covered these steps:

Step One: Teach teens with ASD to identify feelings based on their related energy levels using a color-based zones system

Step Two: Teach them feeling words that are associated with each colored zone.

In this entry I will continue with:

Step Three: Teach them that emotions often are expressed on spectrums and help them identify and use words for different levels of emotions.

Many teens are hesitant to experiment with expressing degrees of emotions. They stick with overbroad words like “upset,” “bored,” “fine” or even “I don’t know” because they’re safer to use and people seldom follow up and question what is really being said or felt when teens use words like these. (Neurotypical adults also tend to overuse generic words and phrases, by the way. But they sometimes do this for different reasons.)

You can use the zones to teach this concept to teens by asking them to identify emotions in each colored zone that are on the same spectrum. For example, the spectrum of feeling worried could look something like this:

Feeling Category BLUE ZONE GREEN ZONE YELLOW ZONE RED ZONE
Worry Relaxed Anxious / Worried Freaking Out

Notice there isn’t a Blue zone word for “worry” since that feeling doesn’t tend to get expressed with reduced energy levels. (If your teen is interested enough in the blank space on the chart, you might bring up worry-related concepts that lead into feelings in the Blue zone such as “avoidance” leading to feeling “tired,” but that might be overkill for the purposes of teaching the basics of emotional expression to an ASD teen.)

Here are some more examples:

Feeling Category BLUE ZONE GREEN ZONE YELLOW ZONE RED ZONE
Excitement Bored Calm Excited Uncontainable Excitement
Anger Moody Not bothered Irritated / Frustrated Angry / Aggressive
Sadness & Happiness Depressed Content Happy / Joyful Overjoyed
Disgust Not bothered Disgusted “Really Sick”
Gratitude Didn’t notice Appreciative Really Thankful Overcome with gratitude

After teaching your teen about the degrees of emotions that exist, you can have them practice identifying more precisely their actual emotions as they come up in daily life. At first this might look like, “You told me you were angry, but I wonder if ‘frustrated’ wouldn’t be a better word for it since you still seem to be in control of yourself and are asking me to help you solve the problem.” Later, as your teen picks up on the degrees of feelings, you can ask them to clarify using lists of options such as, “Which word best describes how you feel right now? Calm, annoyed, irritated, frustrated, angry, mad or enraged?” Finally, you can praise them as they start to use more descriptive feeling words in their daily expression of emotion. “I love how you helped me understand just how you are feeling by saying you were ‘annoyed’ by this school assignment.”

Bonus thought: Another step you can take throughout this process to reinforce use of more descriptive feeling words is to make it a game with your ASD teenager. For example, you could make it a challenge for you and your teen (and perhaps others in your family) to use more descriptive words for your feelings as you go through the day. You might even track points to see who uses new emotion words the most often and have a reward at the end of the week (something small like a candy bar can be quite motivating) and the competitive nature of the game can help you and your teen focus on using more descriptive feeling words.

There will be more steps to come in future blog posts. Remember to take these steps at a slow pace and wait for a degree of mastery before moving on to further steps. “Slower is faster.”

We highly recommend reading:

“The Zones of Regulation: A Curriculum Designed to Foster Self-Regulation and Emotional Control,” written and created by Leah M. Kuypers, MA Ed. OTR/L.

Step Three is an adaptation from The Zones of Regulation.

This article was co-authored by Iddo DeVries, MA-SLP. Iddo DeVries is a Speech-Language Pathologist and the Owner and Clinical Director of Speech Therapy of DV Therapy, Inc. based in Los Angeles, California since 2014. Focusing on dynamic therapy for individuals and their families, Iddo specializes in family training and speech therapy for disabilities and delays including, autism, late-talkers, PDD, specific language impairments, articulation and phonological disorders, auditory processing delays, stuttering, pragmatic and social delays, Verbal Apraxia of Speech. Iddo holds a BS in Speech Communication Sciences from Brooklyn College and an MA in Speech-Language Pathology from Adelphi University. In 2011 Iddo was awarded the outstanding achievement award in the field of speech therapy by the New York City Department of Education. He has been an active member of the nationally accredited speech board ASHA since 2006.

This article has been viewed 13,302 times.

Teaching autistic students can be tough, especially when it comes to emotions. Here are some simple steps you can take to make the learning process easier!

If children feel comfortable and safe, they will feel calmer and be more willing to open up.

How to teach autistic students to communicate feelings

How to teach autistic students to communicate feelings

How to teach autistic students to communicate feelings

How to teach autistic students to communicate feelings

How to teach autistic students to communicate feelings

Alexithymia is a condition that frequently overlaps with autism, and it is characterized by the inability to understand one’s own emotions.

How to teach autistic students to communicate feelings

How to teach autistic students to communicate feelings

Iddo DeVries, MA-SLP
Speech-Language Pathologist Expert Interview. 28 August 2020. Try creating flash cards, or making a poster chart of various facial expressions. When a child isn’t sure how they’re feeling, ask them to point to a picture on the poster, along with monitoring physical symptoms.

    Alternatively, you can make a stoplight chart, with red meaning they’re upset, yellow meaning they need a minute, and green meaning they’re ready to learn. [2] X Expert Source

Aron Janssen, MD, is board-certified in child, adolescent, and adult psychiatry and is the vice chair of child and adolescent psychiatry at Northwestern University.

It’s a myth that children with autism have few or no emotions. Nothing could be further from the truth. Children with autism may become emotional for different reasons or express their emotions differently, but they have just as many feelings as anyone else.  

In some cases, kids with autism may be even more emotional than some of their typical peers. They can have trouble letting their feelings out, though, and may need help expressing them.

How to teach autistic students to communicate feelings

Why Emotions Are Challenging

High-functioning autism can be very challenging. On the one hand, you have the language and cognitive skills to be placed in a typical environment. On the other hand, you lack the social, communication, and executive functioning skills to function well when a change occurs.

At the same time, you may be coping with sensory dysfunction, anxiety, or other issues that make bright lights, loud noises, and high expectations almost impossible to manage.

When kids with autism, even high functioning kids, become extremely frustrated or angry, they often act out. When they do, they may behave in ways that surprise or shock the people around them. For example, they may:

  • Meltdown like a much younger child, with tears and shouting
  • Run away from a difficult situation, sometimes putting themselves in danger
  • Become aggressive or self-abusive
  • Overreact to the situation and be unable to self-calm
  • Be unable to process logical information that, in another situation, would help them to calm down
  • Become too upset to listen to calming suggestions
  • Exhibit self-stimulatory behaviors (hand flapping, etc.)

Many, if not most, children who are diagnosed on the autism spectrum have difficulty regulating their emotions and maintaining a calm state.   They may also be coping with some of the limitations they feel but cannot verbalize or understand in other ways.

Sometimes “mild” autism is anything but. It can be extremely challenging especially for children and their parents. No one wants to see their child in pain when something is not working out.

The good news is that this can change and you can help. Robert Naseef, Ph.D., and Cindy Ariel, Ph.D. offer the following professional tips.

The Feeling Will Pass

Remind your child (and yourself) that crying is caused by a feeling and that feeling will pass like a dark cloud. The sun will come out again even though it feels like the sky is falling.

Help your child to learn to take a few slow deep breaths when they first begin to feel upset. Practice this regularly when they’re not upset. Do it with them. Let them know that all of us, children and adults, get upset and have to learn how to calm ourselves.

Meltdowns

Some meltdowns may involve your child’s reactions and their need to learn to deal with sensitivities and frustrations and to modulate themselves; to find comfort and encouragement from within.

You can help your child learn to deal with extreme emotional reactions by giving them ways to calm or comfort themselves before going on. There are many ways to do this and most of us find our own ways over time.

Forx example, it helps some children to be alone for a few moments. It helps others to sit and talk with someone or to re-direct their thoughts to another place for a bit.

Learn During Calm Times

In neutral times, when your child is not upset, you can talk to them about ways to keep their emotions from flaring up. By learning to own their anxiety and frustration, they can get through it with a little patience or by taking things in smaller steps.

You can work with your child and their teachers regarding the best ways for them to learn to calm down.

Head It Off

During times that you know a meltdown is likely, you can sometimes cut it off by talking with your child about it beforehand and discussing how they might avoid it this time. You might even want to offer a reward for doing so.

When your child finally learns to modulate themselves, the improved feeling of self-confidence will be its own reward, for both you and for them.

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How to Help Your Child with Autism Understand their Emotions
Four Important Tips

For children with autism, dealing with emotions is often very challenging. Many kids with autism perceive emotions as things that arise suddenly and with no warning. They may struggle to recognize their emotions and to link them to the events that have caused them. Children with autism also struggle to identify emotions expressed by others. To help your child with autism better handle their emotions, help them practice identifying emotions in other people, use social stories to help them identify their own emotions, teach coping skills and debrief after an emotional event.

1. Practice looking at facial expressions.

Before kids can understand emotions, they must first be able to recognize them. A good way to practice recognizing emotions is a procedure known as Discrete Trial Training (DTT).

With your child present, seated and engaged, make a facial expression that matches the emotion you’d like the child to label. Then ask, “How am I feeling?” If they answer correctly, provide reinforcement (like a sticker or a snack they really like) and use specific praise statements to let them know they identified the emotion correctly (e.g., “You’re right; I do feel sad!”). For more practice, you can even download these free emotions flashcards and use them for the DTT procedure outlined above.


2. Use social stories to teach children how emotions make you feel.

For kids with autism, the ability to identify an emotion based on facial expression isn’t enough; we also need to teach them how each emotion will make them feel. A social story is an individualized short story that describe a social situation. Social stories are helpful because they provide rules and traits that may present when they are feeling specific emotions. Social stories should be customized for each child’s unique needs. Click here for free social stories resources. A popular example of a social story is “Sometimes I Feel Green” by Lynn Hubbell.

“When I feel green, I am safe and calm.
When I feel green, I am friendly to others.
When I feel green, I follow directions right away.
My teacher and my friends like the way I act when I feel green.
Feeling green feels good.”

3. Teach coping skills and provide a safe space.

Dealing with emotions is a lot more than just identifying them—children with autism need to be provided with a variety of coping skills and a safe space to deal with emotions when they feel overwhelmed. Start by identifying things that seem to calm your child down; these could be a tight hug, playing with their favorite toy or going for a walk. Coping mechanisms vary widely and it’s important to make a list of things that seem to help your child calm down. Once you have this list, create a visual representation of each thing on the list and print it out. Check out this example.

When your child is experiencing overwhelming emotions, present their visual list and ask them to choose what they want to. It’s important to not only present the list but to model the coping mechanisms as well, then provide specific praise for using these coping skills: “You did a good job of walking away from what was upsetting you.”


4. Debrief after an emotional event.

Debriefing is an important step in helping children with autism understand their emotions. Wait until your child is calm and has been engaged in another activity for some time before starting to discuss their recent overwhelming emotions. If your child is very young, it may be helpful to debrief using a social story about how to deal with the emotion they experienced. Make sure that you customize the story based on your child by using examples they can relate to and understand. If your child is an intermediate or advanced learner, consider using a debriefing worksheet (like this example) to discuss what occurred, what happened to individuals around them based on their emotional state at that time, and what strategies might be helpful the next that that emotion occurs.

Learning to deal with emotions can be a difficult process for children with autism but these techniques can help. They’re part of a type of therapy known as Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), an intensive one-on-one therapy that helps kids with autism improve their language, communication and social skills and more!

How to teach autistic students to communicate feelings

How to teach autistic students to communicate feelings

If you’re the parent of an autistic child, you may recognize the feeling: You drop him off to school every day, kiss him good-bye and wait anxiously until the afternoon when it’s time to pick him up. You greet him warmly, but he turns his head away and shrinks into his seat. What’s wrong? He cannot or will not tell you. What can you do? The key to uncovering many of the underlying causes for your child’s behavior may be communication with your child’s teacher, who can be your best ally when it comes to helping your child.

There are two ways of doing this – formally or informally. Formal communication comes in the form of parent-teacher conferences or IEP (Individualized Educational Plan) meetings. These forums exist for the purpose of updating parents on their child’s progress and for reviewing or setting goals for the next year. These meetings are very important, but one cannot discount the significance of informal communication between teachers and parents of children with autism.

Laura Shumaker, author and mother of a child with autism, believes that communication between parents and teachers should be constant and “detailed.” By this she means it should be more than “Had a great day” or “Hit a student.” Want to get started? Here are steps experts they believe parents can take to facilitate communication with their children’s teachers.

Kathy Bolduc, mother of a son with autism and author of several books, encourages parents to “not be afraid to show emotions in parent/teacher conferences. Parenting a child with autism is a challenging, though often joyful, job. By being open with your feelings, you invite the teacher to be in relationship with you.

Invite the teacher over to your home for a cup of coffee and the chance to see your child on his/her home turf. This can go a long way toward forming a relationship. You can put together a simple booklet or pamphlet introducing your child to his teacher at the beginning of the year. List his strengths, favorite activities, foods, music, and books; calming activities you use at home, topics he enjoys talking about, etc.

Sometimes, there is no substitute for an occasional visit to your child’s school at pick up or drop off. (Bring a few flowers from your garden, if possible!) Keep the visit short, but the more appreciation and encouragement you show your child’s teacher, the better the outcome for all.

Teachers are usually open to communication as well, but busy schedules may make it impossible for them to always have the answers parents seek. For example, when Johnny’s mother meets the teacher at the end of a busy day and asks, “How did Johnny do in calendar time today?” the teacher may not have the information at the top of her head. A parent’s question, though casual, may be seeking an in-depth answer, such as whether Johnny sat through the whole of calendar time. Did he respond when called upon? Did he make eye contact? The teacher would do well to say, “We still have some issues to work out. Can I get back to you on that?” Then for the next few days she can compile a log of Johnny’s behaviors and present it to his parents at a scheduled meeting.

Nicole Beurkens, M.Ed. and consultant to parents and school professionals, offers the following do’s and don’ts for teachers:

  • Do make sure you communicate at least one positive for every negative – Positive: Johnny is able to tell us when he wants to go to the bathroom. Negative – Johnny is unable to identify the Boys’ sign.
  • Don’t make parents feel it is their responsibility to “fix” problems that are happening at school.
  • Do respond to communication from parents promptly, especially if you expect them to do the same.
  • Don’t write only when you want to vent or tell the parent about problems.
  • Do ask parents what type of communication system (notebook, email, phone call, etc.) would work best for them.
  • Don’t give up if parents don’t communicate back to you consistently. Keep sharing your observations and requests, and encourage them to do the same.

Communication between parents and teachers is necessary for a child’s educational growth. When the child is autistic, communication becomes crucial. It may not always be possible to do this in a way that is satisfactory to everyone concerned, but with some effort, improvements can be made that will not only benefit the child, but the adults as well.

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My video blog last week was on ruling out medical issues before treating problem behaviors in children with autism. So please watch last week’s blog first before this video blog on autism and pain if you haven’t done so already.

This week I’m going to answer a question I get often: “How do you teach children with autism and severe language impairments to indicate that they are in pain? And how can you teach them to tell you where the pain is coming from?”

For more information on problem behaviors related to pain and the four functions of behavior – a topic closely related to this video blog – I recommend listening to the Turn Autism Around podcast episode 45 .

Indicating Pain

When Lucas was 5 years old, he had surgery to remove his tonsils. My friend, who was a pediatric nurse, warned me that about 5 days after surgery it was common for the scabs to fall off. It could be really painful. So, she told me I shouldn’t be too alarmed if Lucas woke up screaming around the fifth night.

Just as my friend predicted, on night 5 Lucas woke in the middle of the night, screaming in pain. He yelled out, “Arthur’s Tooth!” You see, a video called “Arthur’s Tooth” was one of Lucas’ favorite videos at the time. The character, Arthur, had his tooth pulled and screamed in pain when the tooth came out. For a year or two later, if Lucas skinned his knee or banged his elbow, he would yell “Arthur’s Tooth” as he rubbed the painful body part.

When I became a BCBA, a few years after Lucas started describing all pain as “Arthur’s Tooth,” I was curious as to how to best teach children to talk about pain. I remember asking a very similar question about autism and pain to Lori Frost many years ago. Lori’s response was to make sure you label – and preferably have your child label – when he has something visible that is obviously hurting him.

In other words, when your child has a skinned knee or gets a bee sting, make a big deal out of labeling the pain for him by saying “boo-boo” or ouch. This is an important step. Eventually your child will be able to tell you that he has internal pain, such as a headache or belly pain.

Sensory Issues

When talking about autism and pain, we should also mention sensory processing. Some people with autism over or under process sensory things. They could have an aversion to bright lights or loud noises. My son Lucas wore headphones a lot because he’s bothered by loud noises, especially loud noises that come on suddenly. They could also not respond to their name, which would be an under reactive response to sound or language.

When teaching a child with autism to indicate they’re in pain, we should also be teaching them to indicate when there is a sensory issue . Some kids can’t stand being touched and get over reactive just by the tags in clothing. Most of us wouldn’t even notice a tag, but a child with autism needs to be able to indicate if that is bothering him.

Other kids with autism may be under reactive to touch and need heavy pressure. They jump, or seek input by running into walls or being squished inside the sofa cushions.

Some kids have reactivity issues surrounding feeding as well. They might react to the sight of food, to the taste, the texture, the flavors, the temperature of the food, even the way food looks, like the color of foods, or brands. For example, the way macaroni and cheese looks with different brands. They may refuse anything that’s not their preferred brand.

What parents and professionals initially link to a response to pain may actually just be an over or under reaction to senses. For responses to pain and sensory issues, labeling body parts can really help.

Labeling Body Parts

If your child is indicating pain sensitivity, you can teach them to label what hurts or feels bad. For a non-vocal or minimally vocal child, you might try holding up a picture of a Band Aid and saying Boo Boo on my ___________ to allow the child to fill in the body part that hurts. Or try my ___________ hurts. Your child will fill in the blank with a body part by speaking or choosing a picture of the body part from a selection. Even if your child is speaking, he or she might need added visual supports to learn this concept.

I would also recommend you try to put a real Band-Aid on pictures on various body parts. Have your child fill in the blank – boo boo on the boy’s ___________ or the boy’s ___________ hurts. You could also use the same idea to teach this concept with a speech generating device and/or with sign language. I have found that receptively touching and expressively labeling body parts are usually prerequisite skills for labeling pain. So, I would also recommend working on Mr. Potato Head and other body part programs when your child is not in pain. This can help trigger the brain response when they do feel pain.

School Community Tool Kit

September 1, 2018

Autism education or sensitivity training can occur in a generalized manner, in which students learn about acceptance and sensitivity not related to a particular student at school. It can also be much more specific to the needs of that student and his or her family.

It is very important to communicate with the parents or guardian of the child with autism before any sensitivity training is done.

The teacher or school psychologist leading the class discussion should reach out to the parents or guardian of the child with autism to understand what they are comfortable with in terms of disclosure. Some families may be comfortable with general sensitivity training and acknowledgment of their child’s strengths and challenges to the class, but not with sharing the autism diagnosis. Other families are more open about their child’s diagnosis and are willing to be active participants in the education and sensitivity training. These are personal decision that each family must make and schools should honor. These decisions can also change over time as the needs of the student with autism may change.

It is also important to keep in mind that some families may not have told their children about their diagnosis yet.

Some children may know that they have autism but may not want to share their diagnosis with their classmates. Again, these are individual decisions. The other consideration to discuss in advance is if the student with autism will be present during the sensitivity training. Some families want their children be active participants in the training process, and others might prefer that it’s done when the student is out of the classroom.

Many schools have found it helpful to have a parent, caregiver or school representative who knows the student well introduce the student at the beginning of the school year or during a new inclusion opportunity. If the family or team feels that protecting the student’s privacy is important, the student may not even be mentioned by name and general sensitivity and acceptance may be all that is addressed. Out of respect for the student, a more specific introduction can also be done when he or she is not in the room. It is important to present the student as a person with unique abilities and similarities (a family, siblings, pets, love of music, favorite foods, video games, movies, etc.), while also sharing some of the challenges and differences the students might notice or need to be aware of, such as sensory needs.

Informing Peer Families

In addition to addressing peers, it is also important to reach out to their families. Many parents will not have had experience with autism, and may not understand or have the tools they need to appropriately support their children in fostering relationships with children who seem different. Involving the overall school community will build awareness and sensitivity and benefit everyone involved.

Families of peers can be informed through assemblies or Parent Teacher Organizations (sometimes called Home & School Organizations). In some cases, it may be necessary to inform the peers’ families more directly within a classroom or grade level. Some families may prefer to protect their child’s privacy (which is their right), while others might be inclined to share information in a letter or meeting about their student’s challenges and interests, finding that greater understanding and perspective within the community will reduce fear and improve acceptance.