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Emotion management skills A major challenge for children on the autism spectrum

Emotion management skills and children on the autism spectrum

“An emotion is defined as anything that a person feels when he or she assesses an event in a specific way. It usually leads to physiological alterations or behaviour changes. Thus, all emotions are in essence impulses to act. Consequently, emotions lead to acts that we can comprehend”. (Goleman, 2001)

An emotion is a complex, subjective, conscious experience: it is a combination of cognitive states, psychosomatic expressions and biological reactions of the body.

Emotions encompass three essential components:

  • A physiological component which is related to the bodily arousal that emotions result e.g. heart rate increase.
  • A cognitive component which is related to the fact that emotions are essentially conscious experiences that can be justified or interpreted.
  • A behavioural component which refers to the overt expressions displayed as a result of an emotional experience, such as expressions in the face, in a person’s voice and in body posture.

Types of Emotions

Within the literature on emotional intelligence, there are five emotions which are consistently cited as basic: happiness, sadness, anger, surprise and fear.

Emotions are further distinguished into positive emotions (happiness, compassion, enthusiasm, trust, admiration, bliss, contentment etc.) and negative emotions (sadness, aversion, despair, hopelessness, anxiety, distress, rage, hatred, anger etc.).

Recognising Emotions

Emotion management poses a major challenge for children on the autism spectrum, largely because of the fact that emotions are perceived as arising suddenly and with very little warning. Children on the autism spectrum have considerable difficulty recognising their emotions and linking them to the events that have caused them. Therefore, when we train children with ASD to name the emotions they experience, it is equally important to help them learn how to associate these emotions with the particular events or incidents that have triggered them. This is crucial in helping them learn to generalise across similar incidents and thus develop the ability to recognise their emotions more quickly and effectively.

Emotion management skills

1. Naming the child’s emotion: For example: “Tom, you look scared”.Four steps in the process of Recognising Emotions:

2. Linking the child’s emotion to the event that has triggered it: For example: “You may be scared because this game is new for you”.

3. Confirming that it is OK to feel this way. For example: “It’s OK to feel this way, when you try something new!”

4. Soothing and reassuring the child. For example: “Let me help you. As soon as we try this together, it will be much easier and less scary.”


When using the above approach, make sure to follow the steps below:

Step No 1: Identify and name the child’s emotion.

Step No 2: Link the child’s emotion to the event that has triggered it.

Step No 3: Confirm that it is OK if the child feels this way.

Step No 4: Reassure and soothe the child in a way that will help them to cope with the situation at hand.


You can further strengthen your student’s emotion recognition skills by playing simple interactive games such as “Guess my emotion”, “Emotion Charades” and the “Mirror Game” where players take turns to guess the emotion that the other player is demonstrating. There are also several board games and card games that have been specially designed to enhance emotion recognition and expression skills.

Emotion recognition is a key skill which significantly impacts on a child’s ability to understand and describe what others may be thinking or feeling and to draw links between people’s emotions and thoughts / actions.

Emotion management skills pose a major challenge for children on the autism spectrum and the people caring for them. All the more so because parents, teachers and therapists need to feel sure that the emotion management skills they are striving to foster will actually be applied by their children in practice.

The eBook series entitled Recognising, Expressing and Regulating Emotions is setting out to bridge the ‘gap’ between theory and practice by equipping you with a comprehensive and ready-to-use methodology that genuinely builds your children’s ability to manage emotions autonomously. 

Alice Kassotaki - Speech Language Pathologist MSc, BSc

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