Emotions and typical development
Humans have six 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 two 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. They also build skills to manage their emotions and recognise and respond 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, babies will cry when they hear other babies cry. Toddlers and older children will comfort someone who’s upset.
Emotions and autistic children
Autistic children often find it hard to:
- recognise emotions, facial expressions and other emotional cues like tone of voice and body language
- show and manage their own emotions
- understand and respond to other people’s emotions – they might lack, or seem to lack, empathy with others.
Babies who are later diagnosed with autism can recognise feelings in a similar way to typically developing babies. But these children are slower to develop emotional responses than typically developing children.
By 5-7 years, many autistic children can recognise happy and sad, but they have a harder time with subtle expressions of fear and anger.
By adolescence, autistic teenagers still aren’t as good at recognising fear, anger, surprise and disgust as typically developing teenagers.
As adults, many continue to have trouble recognising some emotions.
Showing and understanding their own emotions
Babies who are later diagnosed with autism can show feelings in a similar way to typically developing babies.
By school age, children with less severe autism might 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 autism seem to have less emotional expression than typically developing children.
It might look like autistic children don’t respond emotionally, or their emotional responses might sometimes seem over the top. This is because autistic children can find it hard to manage their emotions. For example, they might get very angry very quickly, or find it hard to calm down from strong emotions.
Understanding and responding to other people’s emotions
From an early age, autistic children often pay less attention to other people’s emotional behaviour and faces.
Young autistic children 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 shared or joint attention, and the lack of it is one of the early warning signs for autism.
Autistic preschoolers continue to find shared attention difficult and often won’t use words to direct someone else’s attention.
Autistic children often also find it hard to use emotion to understand social interactions. They might not notice when others are upset or angry. They might show less concern for others and have less ability to comfort others or share emotions. They might misread situations and respond with emotions that are off the mark. For example, an autistic child might not comfort a sibling who falls over, or might laugh because they don’t recognise that the child is hurt.
Encouraging emotional development in autistic children
Autistic children can build skills in recognising and managing their emotions. You can use everyday interactions to help your autistic child learn about emotions and improve their 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. 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, speak again. You might need to do this in an exaggerated way to get your child’s attention – for example, by using a bright voice and a lot of expression.
- 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.
- The Transporters is an animation series that uses transport characters to teach emotions to autistic children aged 2-8 years.
- Social stories are a way of explaining social situations to autistic children. An illustrated story or comic strip conversation that incorporates how your child feels and how others feel might be useful for your child.
It helps to have realistic expectations. Autistic children can learn to be more emotionally responsive, but even when they have these skills, they tend to use them less than other children.
Getting help for emotional development in autistic children
There’s a wide range of therapies and supports available for autistic children, some of which might be able to help your child with generalising and showing emotions.
Autistic children will need support generalising what they learn in therapy sessions to their everyday lives.
Other parents can be a great source of ideas, experience and support. You could try connecting in an online or a face-to-face support group.