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8 Steps to Help Autistic Children Recognise Emotions and Expressions

Recognising facial expressions of emotions is critical for creating connections and social interaction in early life. Recognising emotions and expressions of others is one of the basic skills allowing us to understand people’s intentions and mind status and has an important role in enabling us to interact with people around us. However, autistic people can face difficulties with this which can lead to further struggles in effective social communication and social interaction. There are some easy ways in which we can help teach autistic children how to recognise expressions and emotions and help them build great relationships with friendships.

Autism and Emotions

Neurotypical children are able to recognise basic facial expressions such as happy and sad from as early as 3 to 4 months of age and they are able to respond to and reciprocate the emotions of others by just 7 months.

One of the main diagnostic characteristics of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is difficulty in recognising and understanding emotions. This includes challenges in identifying facial expressions, body language as well as voice tonality - essentially all non-verbal communication. As a vast majority of our communication is non-verbal, having skills in this area is essential for effective social interaction and communication.

Even though autistic children have difficulties to interpret emotions, there many studies showings that autistic children and adults can learn how to recognise and interpret emotions and research has shown that structured activities can positively impact autistic children’s competence in identifying the feelings of others.

8 Steps to Teach Emotional Recognition to Autistic Children

1. Choose Age-Appropriate Activities

When it comes to teaching any new skill to a child, particularly if they have SEN, it is important to choose activities that meet their developmental age. This includes choosing the right stimulus and activity types as well as using the right communication method and vocabulary. For example, if a child is non-verbal or has a limited language , it is important to choose a communication method that corresponds to their strengths, such as PECS or Makaton. While practising a new skill, such as emotion identification, it is best to use simple and straight forward instructions. You can use short and clear sentences and even combine verbal instructions with visual support to make sure children understand the instructions.

2. One Emotion at a Time

It can be very tempting to present a child with lots of information and worksheets to learn various emotions. However, when it comes to teaching something as complex as emotions, it is critical to take small steps and make sure the child is able to absorb what you are trying to teach them. Try staring with basic emotions such as happiness, sadness, anger and fear. One you are confident that a child has grasped the concept of one emotion and can recognise it in others either in the real world on in books, movies etc), then you can add a second.

3. Use Visual Aids and Picture Cards

Often it is difficult to use dynamic expressions (i.e. ones that are moving) to start teaching emotions to a autistic children. At first, we can use pictures and visuals with a very specific and often exaggerated expression to help children learn to recognise emotions. Subtle expressions can be a) hard to explain and b) hard for autistic children to pick up on, so starting off with exaggerated expressions will make things a lot easier. It is best to choose pictures that are showing only the face area on a white or blank background. In this way, children can only focus on the components and parts in the face that are creating the expressions and are not distracted by anything else.

Also for many children it is helpful to point out the face parts that signal an emotion. For example, on a picture, we can show the month, eyebrows and eyes, to help the child learn how each of these parts would look like when we express an emotion. With happiness, we can explain how the mouth turns up into a smile and how the eyes are often bright.

You can also use pictures of specific parts of a face to help children grasp what a happy mouth would look like or how an angry frown is.

4. Make Activities Fun and Engaging!

All children love to play and play-based learning is one of the most effective ways of teaching a new skill in childhood. Try to incorporate emotions in fun activities. There are many activities that trigger curiosity and excitement that can be used to teach emotion recognition and labelling. Below are some examples of activities children love to play and can help them to learn about emotions.

  • Imagination play

  • Building forts and dens

  • Board games

5. Use a Variety of Visual Aids to Help Generalise Emotional Recognition

The goal of teaching is to help autistic children to gain a skill they can use in their day-to-day life. The fact that a child can recognise a set of pictures showing emotions, doesn’t guarantee that they are able to identify a new set of emotions or they can recognise emotions in real life. It is important to allow children to practice emotion recognition in a variety of set ups and across a variety of stimuli. There are a lot of materials that are designed for teaching emotions and you can simply use various image sets or apps to allow kids practice identifying emotions.

6. Use Children's Books to help Label Emotions

When children are comfortable with recognising from simple and exaggerated pictures, it’s time to present them with more complex expressions. For example, instead of a picture with a simple expression on a blank background, we can show visuals that are showing the emotions in a real-life scenario. For example, images showing a happy child in a birthday party or an angry child with a broken toy. This will help children to expand their emotion recognition skills, and it will also allow them to gradually put emotions in context and be able to connect emotions with their triggers.

One of the best materials for this step is visual books and stories. When reading a story, you can always label the emotions of the characters and help the child to pay attention to the emotional status of the characters. Some books I recommend are;

You can also do the same when watching kids’ animations and movies. Whenever appropriate, try to label emotions so your child will be reminded of them.

7. Go Outdoors!

When you are out and about with your child, there are numerous opportunities to label emotions and discuss them. For example, when you are in a playground, you can always show a child and label their emotions. This way your child will learn that emotions are always available around us and they can spot them when paying attention to other people around them. Labelling emotions in the natural environment is critical for helping children to generalise their knowledge of emotions and it increases their chance of using their newly acquired skill in their social interaction with others.

8. Get the Child to Name the Emotion

It is always great to use activities that target expressive language and request children to use their vocabulary. For example, you can show an expression and ask the child to name the expression. Or when you are watching a movie or playing outdoors, ask the child about how they think people are feeling.

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