Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) often find it hard to recognise and control emotions. However, their skills in the area of emotional development can be improved, which in turn can help them understand and respond more appropriately to other people.

Emotions and typical development

Humans have 6 basic emotions – happiness, surprise, sadness, anger, fear and disgust. We also experience more complex feelings like embarrassment, shame, pride, guilt, envy, joy, trust, interest, contempt and anticipation.

The ability to understand and express these emotions starts developing from birth.

From around 2 months, most babies will laugh and show signs of fear. By 12 months, a typically developing baby can read your face to get an understanding of what you’re feeling. Most toddlers and young children start to use words to express feelings – although you might see a tantrum or two when their feelings get too big for their words!

Throughout childhood and adolescence, most children continue building empathy, self-regulation and skills in recognising and responding to other people’s feelings. By adulthood, people are usually able to quickly recognise subtle emotional expressions.

Empathy is the ability to share and understand another person’s feelings. We can see the first signs of empathy in babies – for example, a baby will cry when he hears other babies cry. Toddlers and older children will comfort someone who is upset.

Emotions and children with autism spectrum disorder

Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) often find it hard to:

  • recognise facial expressions and the emotions behind them

  • copy or use emotional expressions

  • understand and control their own emotions

  • understand and interpret emotions – they might lack, or seem to lack, empathy with others.

Recognising emotions

Babies who are later diagnosed with ASD can recognise feelings in a similar way to typically developing babies. However, these children are slower to develop emotional responses than typically developing children.

By 5-7 years, these children can recognise happy and sad, but they have a harder time with subtle expressions of fear and anger.

By adolescence, teenagers with ASD still aren’t as good at recognising fear, anger, surprise and disgust as typically developing teenagers.

As adults, they continue to have trouble recognising some emotions.

Showing emotions

Babies who are later diagnosed with ASD can show feelings in a similar way to typically developing babies.

By school age, children with less severe ASD tend to show their feelings in a similar way to typically developing children, but can find it hard to describe their feelings. They might say that they don’t feel a particular emotion. At the same age, many children with more severe ASD seem to have less emotional expression than typically developing children.

It might look like children with ASD don’t respond emotionally, or their emotional responses might sometimes seem over the top – for example, they might get very angry very quickly.

Responding to and interacting with others

From an early age, children with ASD often pay less attention to other people’s emotional behaviour and faces.

They don’t tend to point out interesting things to other people, or respond to interesting things that others point out to them. This is called social or joint attention, and the lack of it is one of the early warning signs for ASD. Pre-schoolers with ASD continue to find shared attention difficult and often won’t use words to direct someone else’s attention.

Children with ASD often also find it hard to use emotion to manage social interactions. They might show less concern for others and less ability to comfort others or share emotions. They might misread situations and respond with emotions that are off the mark.

For example, a child with ASD might not comfort a sibling who falls over, or might laugh because he doesn’t recognise that the child is hurt.

Face perception

Children with ASD might have trouble understanding other people’s emotions because of the way they scan faces.

People with ASD tend to scan faces in a more random way than typically developing people. They spend less time looking at the eyes and more time focusing on the mouth. This means the information they get from a person’s face tells them less about what that person is feeling.

Encouraging emotional development in children with autism spectrum disorder

You can use everyday interactions to help your child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) learn about feelings and improve his ability to express and respond to emotions.

Here are some ideas:

  • Label emotions in natural contexts: when you’re reading a book, watching a video or visiting friends with your child, you can point out emotions to him. For example, you might say, ‘Look – Sally’s smiling. She’s happy’.

  • Be responsive: respond to your child’s emotions by saying, for example, ‘You’re smiling, you must be happy’. You can also play up your own emotional responses – for example, ‘I am SO excited! Give me a high five’.

  • Get your child’s attention: if you speak to your child and get no response from him, speak again. You might need to do this in an exaggerated way early on to get his attention.

  • Encourage looking and eye contact: you can encourage your child to look at you when you’re interacting, perhaps by joining in with whatever he’s doing. Or if your child asks for something, you could wait until he looks at you and then give him what he wants. Use a bright voice with lots of expression to get his attention.

  • Draw your child’s attention to another person. For example, ask someone else to tell your child what you said, to draw your child’s attention to another person who’s speaking.

You might also find the following tools useful:

  • Emotion cards have pictures of faces, either real or cartoon, which you can use to teach your child basic emotions.

  • Social Stories™ is a highly structured program that uses stories to explain social situations to children with ASD. A story or comic strip conversation that incorporates how your child feels and how others feel might be useful for your child with ASD.

It helps to have realistic expectations. Children with ASD can learn to be more emotionally responsive, but even when they have these skills, they tend to use them less than other children.

Finding help

There’s a wide range of therapies and interventions available for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) - some of which might be able to help your child with recognising and showing emotions.

Other parents can be a great source of ideas, experience and support. You could try connecting with an online or a face-to-face support group.

© raisingchildren.net.au, translated and adapted with permission

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