Emotional development: autistic children and teenagers
Some autistic children and teenagers need support to recognise, understand and manage their emotions. For example, your autistic child might interpret all negative or unpleasant emotions as anger or as physical sensations, like feeling heat or breathlessness. Or they might not recognise when they’re excited. Or they might label all emotions that are hard to describe as ‘being bored’.
Some autistic children and teenagers might also need support to recognise, interpret and respond appropriately to other people’s emotions. For example, your child might not notice when someone looks confused or feels upset or angry. Or they might see someone who’s upset and incorrectly think that the person is angry at them.
Learning to recognise, interpret, manage and respond to emotions is important for your child. It can strengthen your child’s relationships and boost their mental health and wellbeing.
Recognising emotions: autistic children
Working on awareness of their own and other people’s emotions is the first step in helping autistic children and teenagers learn about emotions.
For autistic children, everyday interactions can be a good way to learn about emotions. Here are ideas:
- Label emotions as you and your autistic child come across them during the day. You can point out emotions when you’re reading, watching TV or visiting friends. For example, ‘Look – Sally’s smiling. She’s happy’.
- Point out your child’s emotions. For example, ‘You’re smiling. You must be happy’.
- Emphasise your own emotional responses. For example, ‘I am SO excited! Give me a high five’.
- Help your child work out how their body feels when they’re feeling an emotion. For example, ‘You look nervous. Do you have a funny feeling in your tummy?’
- Draw a picture of the body to show where people feel emotion – for example, sweaty palms or a faster heartbeat.
- Ask your child to draw how they’re feeling.
- Encourage your child to explore emotions through play or creative activities. Play ideas to develop preschooler emotions and play ideas to develop school-age emotions include messy play, drawing or painting, puppet play, dancing and music play.
- Do an emotions activity with your child. You choose an emotion like ‘excited’ and act it out with your child. You can turn this activity into a simple guessing game.
Emotions tools can work for some autistic children too:
- 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 and comic strip conversations are ways of explaining social situations to autistic children. A story or comic strip that incorporates feelings might be useful for your child.
Recognising emotions: autistic pre-teens and teenagers
Autistic pre-teens and teenagers might know the words for emotions but still have trouble recognising them in themselves and others, particularly when they’re upset. They might also have difficulty recognising other people’s facial expressions, tone of voice or body language.
Here are ideas to help:
- Point out your autistic child’s emotions. Start with emotions like happiness, fear and anger, and then move on to more complicated emotions like jealousy, frustration or embarrassment. For example, ‘I can see that you’re frustrated. Are you having trouble with that guitar chord?’
- Encourage your child to describe sensations in their body. For example, if your child seems worried, you could suggest that it feels like a ‘blender in their stomach’. Or you could point out how their heart beats faster when they’re feeling scared.
- Point out emotions in characters in movies. For example, you could watch Inside Out together and talk about how the characters’ behaviour shows what they’re feeling.
- Encourage your child to explore their emotions through creative activities, like writing, gaming, drawing, or listening to music.
This is a useful tool for helping your child move from recognising emotions to recognising emotional intensity. Here’s an example of a ladder picture for anger.
You draw a picture of a ladder and give each rung a number from 1 to 5, plus a label:
- Rung 1 is not angry, everything is OK.
- Rung 2 is a little angry – for example, when I forget to take my homework to school.
- Rung 3 is moderately angry – for example, when someone is mean and plays a joke on me.
- Rung 4 is very angry – for example, when someone pushes me over on purpose.
- Rung 5 is extremely angry, and I’m going to explode like a volcano – for example, when someone deliberately rips up my work.
Then you ask your child to point at the rung that best describes how they feel.
For the labels, you could use pictures instead of words. For example, the label on rung 1 could be a smiley face emoji, and the label on rung 5 could be an enraged face or exploding head emoji. Or instead of a ladder, you could use a thermometer picture with temperature levels and labels instead of ladder rungs.
Understanding and accepting emotions: autistic children and teenagers
If your autistic child understands why they feel the way they do, it can help them accept their emotions.
You can help your child understand why they feel the way they do by explaining how thoughts can lead to feelings. For example, you could draw a picture of a dog with a child. Then you could say, ‘If a dog jumps up at you and you think it’s going to bite, you might feel scared. But if you think what a fun, playful dog it is, you might feel excited instead’.
Or you could use comic strip conversations showing characters with various facial expressions and thought bubbles to help your child link emotions with thoughts and behaviour. For example, you could draw stick figures of your child and a friend to illustrate a conversation. Use different colours to show what they’re thinking, saying and feeling.
As part of understanding emotions, it’s important for your child to know that everyone experiences a range of emotions. For example, you could say, ‘It’s normal to feel all sorts of things, like happy, sad, excited, jealous. Sometimes feelings are big and sometimes they’re small. All these feelings are OK’. It might also help to talk about how big feelings will pass with time.
Managing emotions: autistic children and teenagers
Strong emotions can be overwhelming for autistic children and teenagers. They often need help to manage strong emotions and calm down from them. But they can learn techniques to manage these emotions.
Below are ideas and strategies to help autistic children and teenagers manage strong emotions. When you use these strategies with your child, remember that learning to manage strong emotions takes practice. It’s good for your child to practise when they’re calm. This will make it easier for your child to remember and use the strategies when they’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed.
Calming down steps
You can help autistic children and teenagers calm down from strong emotions using a 5-step process:
- Notice the emotion.
- Name the emotion.
- Pause and say nothing.
- Support your child while they calm down.
- Address the issue that sparked the emotion.
Your child could try relaxation exercises to see what works for them. For example, they could count to 10, take 5 deep breaths, or think about something that makes them happy and calm.
They could also try using their fingers to focus on their breathing. Using a finger, your child slowly traces around their hand, breathing in when they trace up to the top of a finger and breathing out when they trace back down a finger. Repeat for all 10 fingers.
Your child could clap their hands if they’re excited or squeeze a cushion or a sensory toy if they’re angry. Fidget toys from a sensory kit or stimming might also help.
If your child’s sensory-seeking behaviour is hurting them, you might be able to replace it with another behaviour that meets the same sensory need. For example, if your child picks their skin, they could fiddle with rings or a bracelet or pick off clear nail polish instead.
Your child could go for a walk, get a drink of water, or find a quiet place to sit.
Change of activity
Encourage your child to take a brain break and listen to their favourite music, read a book or listen to a podcast about their special interests.
Your child could go for a short run, kick a football, do push-ups or shoot basketball hoops.
It can be hard for your child to use strategies like these when they’re very upset. They might shout, hit things, behave aggressively or behave in challenging ways. In these situations, you might need to help autistic children and teenagers avoid or manage meltdowns.
Getting help for emotional development
An experienced professional can help your child understand and manage their emotions. A good first step is talking with your child’s GP, paediatrician, psychologist or other health professionals about therapies and supports for autistic children and teenagers.