Teaching emotions can be extremely challenging and confusing for children with autism. This does not mean that they are insensitive to the emotions of others! Their brains simply process information in a different way, which requires more instruction and prompting when it comes to emotions. Since this is an area of difficulty for many children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), there are many strategies in applied behavior analysis therapy (ABA therapy) to build these skills.
Many children with autism experience delays in both expressive and receptive language, making it difficult (to say the least) to express how they are feeling and what they are thinking. That inability to communicate with others can be extremely frustrating! To help build these skills, an ABA therapist may work with the child to build their speech and language skills. During the time when children are still building these skills, visual supports may be a great way for children to show others how they are feeling. For example, they might have a ‘feelings’ or ‘emotions’ chart with images to represent how they are feeling (e.g. happy, disappointed, or frustrated).
Children on the autism spectrum also have trouble with detecting emotions of other people. To repeat, this does not mean that they are insensitive or lack empathy! Autism spectrum disorder makes it more difficult for children to interpret nonverbal cues that indicate emotions and feelings, such as body language or facial expressions. For instance, unless a person explicitly states, “I am feeling sad today,” a child with autism may not recognize that their low energy and grim expression signals that the person is experiencing sadness.
Working on emotions in ABA therapy
An ABA therapist can help children on the spectrum to read emotions using a variety of strategies. This might include flashcards with visuals, social stories, or scripting. There are many different types of flashcards that show people expressing different emotions, so running through these cards can help children to identify emotions in other people. The therapist might also create social stories to coach the child on appropriate responses to the feelings of others in a social context. Another helpful method, scripting, can help children with autism to express their emotions in a social setting, such as school. For example, they can practice different phrases to use when they are feeling angry or frustrated, rather than expressing their emotions in a problematic way.
Every child processes information differently, so not every strategy will work perfectly for every child. It may be a process of trial and error to determine the strategy that works best for your kiddo!
Do you think your child could benefit from working on emotions in ABA therapy in Chicago?
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