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Emotions of children on the autism spectrum

Emotions of children on the autism spectrum can be created suddenly in a quite short notice. Often, they fail to recognize the emotion or to establish a connection between the emotion and its expression. While showing children how to identify an emotion, it is also of vital importance to show them how to connect it with a specific event. This facilitates the process.

Emotions of children and teens on the autism spectrum

Fours steps to identify emotions:

  1. Definition of the child’s emotion: “Nick, you look scared”.
  2. Connection of the emotion while it is being expressed: “Maybe you are scared because this is a new game”.
  3. Confirmation that it is normal to have such an emotion: “It makes sense to be scared when you try something new for the first time”.
  4. Reassurance: “Let me help you. It will be easier and less scaring if we do it together”


By using this approach the steps mentioned below are followed:

1st step:  Identification and designation of the emotion.

2nd step: Connection of the emotion with the event that created it in the first place.

3rd step: Confirmation that it is normal to have such an emotion.

4th step: Reassurance and support of the child through the emotion.

The skills of emotional identification can be developed by playing simple games such as “Guess the emotion”, “Pantomime” and “The mirror game” where you and the child have to guess in turns the emotion indicated by the other. You can also find a variety of board and card games related to the identification and the expression of the emotions in the market.

As soon as the children are able to identify/recognize accurately the emotions, they will be able to express what other people “think” and “do”. Later on, they will be able to connect their emotions to “thoughts” and “actions”.


Children’s empathy in the transition period from early childhood to preschool age

The changes (Denham, 1998) that take place in children’s empathy in the transition period from early childhood to preschool age are the following:

  • Verbal and non-verbal characterization of the emotional expressions.
  • Identification of the events that stimulate emotions.
  • Drawing conclusions and consequences from specific emotional expressions.
  • Use of emotional language to describe personal emotional experiences and to clarify others’ emotional experiences.
  • Identification of the difference between personal and others’ emotional experiences.
  • Awareness of emotional regulation strategies.
  • Development of knowledge about the rules of emotional expression.
  • Development of knowledge about how various emotions, even contradictory ones, can occur at the same time.
  • Gradual understanding of complex social emotions such as guilt.


Emotional learning

The social skills to identify, understand and react to others’ emotion are crucial. They play a key role in understanding and establishing relationships with others.

Some children might find it difficult to identify and understand emotions. They might face difficulties in noticing/understanding crucial non-verbal signals (such as the shape of one’s eyebrows, body movements or the voice accent and rhythm) which are used to indicate the difference between various emotions. In cases when the children are incapable of identifying and understanding accurately others' emotions, they might misbehave while the interaction process takes place. Emotions must be taught explicitly and in the clearest way possible.

From the age of four to the age of six, most children are able to identify and understand the main emotions: joy, sadness, anger, and fear. The more complex emotions (such as pride, guilt, and shame) are based on the main ones. A deep understanding of the main emotions must precede the introduction of the more complex ones.


1. Attention approach

Some children must be taught to pay attention to facial expressions and derive social information. Find as many opportunities as possible to practice identification, designation, and reaction to the child’s emotions, as well as to others’ emotions. Some examples are presented below:

  • If the child is angry because you have denied him the toy he/she desires, you should say: “You are angry now, because you wanted me to give you this toy and I didn’t.” Keep your arms crossed and have a steady and loud voice.
  • If the child is happy because he/she has won a brick, you should say: “You are happy now, because you won this brick.” Smile, keep your eyes open and have a cheerful tone of voice.
  • While watching a movie or reading a book, point out the characters’ emotions.
  • When someone (family members, teachers, friends, etc.) expresses an emotion, do not miss the chance to designate the emotion expressed.
  • Use, in a natural way, various opportunities to help the child identify emotions. When someone around expresses an emotion, point it out saying “Look, Mary is smiling. She has the emotion of joy, so she is happy.


2. Naming the emotions

As soon as the child starts paying attention to facial expressions, teach him/her the names of the emotions starting from the main ones: joy, sadness, anger, and fear.

  • Start using realistic pictures. You can use familiar faces from photo albums, pictures or magazines, etc.
  • Show a picture to the child designating the emotions “joy,” “sadness” etc. Depending on the abilities of the child, you could also give some extra sentences (“The boy feels happy”) to help him.
  • Place two pictures that illustrate people who have different emotions on the table in front of the child and ask him/her to show you an emotion. For instance, you can say: “Show me a happy face.” At first, the child might need your help to succeed it.
  • As soon as the child can choose the right picture with no help at all, introduce a new emotion.
  • Increase the number of pictures until the child can choose among all the five main emotions.
  • As soon as the child can choose the right picture with no help at all, introduce even more emotions.
  • When the child can name the main emotions with the use of realistic pictures, use a variety of other pictures and drawings of the emotions to help the child “generalize” the emotion and its name. In other words, help the child identify the same emotion in different faces and different forms (drawing, clip art, etc.).


3. Designating emotions

As soon as the child is able to identify the four main emotions, he/she should try to designate them.

  • Show to the child a picture of a person expressing an emotion and ask him/her “How does he feel?” At first, you might have to help the child by designating the emotion so that he/she can repeat it (modeling).
  • Introduce a new emotion as soon as the child has successfully designated the previous emotion.


4. Actions based on emotions

It is now time for the child to act based on emotions.

  • Stand in front of a mirror next to the child and start making faces in turns. For instance, make an angry face and ask “How do I feel?”. If the child is able to designate the emotion successfully, say “Now try to make an angry face yourself”.
  • Explain to the child what you are doing when expressing a specific emotion (“My eyes are getting smaller and smaller and my lips are getting more tightened, like a small ball”).


5. Role-playing

Depending on the abilities of the child, you could try “role-playing”, during which some emotions are identified. For instance, you could pretend that you are quite happy because you have bought an ice cream.

  • In the next stage, the child pretends to have an emotion and you have to guess which one it is.
  • At first, make an excessive use of non verbal language, such as gestures and facial expressions. As the child is getting better in identifying emotions, you can act in a more natural way.
  • Suggest the “role-playing” game to be practiced at home too for further identification and expression of emotions.


6. Modeling (filming)

Many children enjoy watching television. This can be used in the process of learning the emotions.

  • Make a short video showing adults or children expressing an emotion.
  • Watch the video with the child and help him/her designate the emotion.
  • Point out the key features, such as the shape of the mouth, of the eyes and the eyebrows, the particular body movements, the gestures and the tone of voice.


7. Games

If the child enjoys playing board games, make the most out of it in order to practice everything he/she has already been taught about emotions.


8. Books

Reading books is another successful way to help the child learn about others’ emotions in various situations. Look for books which have the same characters as the ones the child enjoys watching in films and turn learning into a fun activity.


From: “Identification, Expression & Regulation of Emotions / ADVANCED LEVEL”

The digital resource “Identification, Expression & Regulation of Emotions / ADVANCED LEVEL” is a complete guide to identifying, expressing and regulating 40 secondary emotions through an integrated methodology of three levels.

Alice Kassotaki - Speech Language Pathologist MSc, BSc

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