When working with neurodivergent learners, the diagnostic process is as varied and unique as the individual. Clinicians have a range of techniques for diagnosing and working with people diagnosed with autism.
What Are Some Signs of Autism in Children?
Some potential signs of autism in children include:
- Sensory sensitivities
- Difficulty making direct eye contact
- Focus on repetition (words or movements)
- Difficulty describing emotions
- A desire for a strict, reliable schedule
- And more
What Is Alexithymia?
One of the many indicators of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is the inability or difficulty to recognize basic emotions in others — often called alexithymia. This can make it difficult for individuals with autism to express themselves to others.
Alexithymia exists along a spectrum (like autism does); one of the ways to self-test this trait is with questionnaires like the Toronto Alexithymia Scale (TAS-20) and the Perth Alexithymia Questionnaire.
When it comes to our children, things might get a tad more complex: How can we help them with emotional recognition? And how can we better understand their perspective on social interactions?
How Do Emotions Differ in Children on the Autistic Spectrum?
A common misconception of those with autism and similar developmental disorders is that they do not feel or process emotions as their neurotypical peers do. While children with autism may express their emotions differently from the general population, it does not at all mean that they don’t feel them as strongly.
Children with autism may struggle with even deeper emotions due to overstimulation or trouble interpreting situations and corresponding emotions. Such strong emotions can interrupt social skills and social functioning in complex situations. Children with autism may have difficulty identifying intense or negative emotions.
Children with autism or Asperger syndrome may mislabel their feelings or may not be able to pinpoint their root cause. In their struggle to understand and explain their own feelings or the emotions of others, they may become frustrated or upset in social situations.
Similarly, children on the autism spectrum may have difficulty expressing empathy or understanding why another person is feeling a certain way.
Furthermore, sensing others’ emotions may be more challenging because children with autism tend to avoid eye contact. Since so much emotion is shown through facial expressions and body language, this may be missed by those who aren’t looking for it.
What’s important to remember is that just because these feelings are not visible doesn’t mean they are not present. There can be life-long impacts when a child’s feelings are ignored or dismissed.
How Do Children With Autism Express Emotions Differently?
The term alexithymia refers to a person who has difficulty expressing their emotions. There are different levels of alexithymia, and those with high-functioning autism may have lower social-emotional deficits than those with more severe disabilities.
When discussing these differences, we consider two factors: emotional processing and expression.
When considering emotional processing and awareness, we examine the problems these children and adolescents face deciphering their own emotions and understanding the reasoning behind them. These children may need extra help when learning emotional regulation and control.
Recognizing emotion and being able to put a name to it is a skill that not all have, and those who do have it tend to take it for granted. Experiencing intense emotions can be confusing for those who struggle to understand emotions to begin with.
When some children experience these feelings, they don’t know what to do with them or how to regulate these emotions.
The ability to control one’s emotions and exercise the social skills needed for navigating the world is called emotional intelligence. As parents and caregivers, we can model emotional intelligence and help instill these skills in our children.
Anger or Frustration
Imagine how difficult it may be to handle your emotions when you can’t even comprehend what they are or why they’re happening. Neurologically they just do not register emotions in the same way, which puts them in a difficult emotional state.
Anger may be intensified because of the added level of frustration and trouble understanding. Without emotional regulation skills, children with autism may have a harder time calming down and getting back on track.
Overstimulation occurs when too many stimuli are present for someone to process at once. It can lead to emotional displays of anger, fear, anxiousness, or emotional withdrawal.
When a child with autism is overstimulated, they may not react appropriately or demonstrate emotions as others may expect. Additionally, children on the autism spectrum tend to become overstimulated more frequently if they have sensory sensitivities.
Overstimulated behaviors might look like:
- Holding their ears
- Rocking or humming
- Displaying self-aggression
The ability to read external expressions includes taking account of facial expressions, body language, and verbally sharing emotions.
Some people are easy to read and wear their emotions on their sleeves. When they’re talking, you can see their reactions, empathy, and feelings through their facial expressions.
People with autism may have a harder time with this. They feel their emotions internally but don’t always show them in the way neurotypical individuals do. This can make it harder for those around them to understand how they’re feeling or when that person needs extra emotional support.
Body language is a learned skill that may not come as naturally to those on the autism spectrum, as well. Body language is a means of communicating nonverbally through motions or gestures to suggest certain things. While they may recognize body language in others, they do not always express them the same.
Because these children may have a hard time understanding emotions, they have an even harder time verbally communicating them. They could struggle to label what they are feeling and share it with others, leading to miscommunication and misinterpretation.
How To Help Children Build Emotional Awareness
Emotional awareness and regulation are skills that can be learned.
Some strategies that children with autism can benefit from include:
Learn To Label Emotions
Labeling emotions frequently and repeatedly can help your child identify them. You may point out details of emotion and signs that demonstrate it. Then, name the emotion out loud.
For example, point out characters in movies and describe their expressions and actions. You may say, “That little boy is crying. It looks like he’s feeling sad.” Doing this names the emotion while pointing out common signs of this emotion.
You can also label your own child’s emotions. If they are smiling, remark on how happy they look. This reinforces the things a child can do to display emotions in a nonverbal way.
Express Emotions Through Art
Art is a great way to express emotions. Ask your child to draw or paint a picture to show how they feel. This takes the pressure off of them to find the words that they need and still gives them an outlet to express their feelings.
For a more simple task, simply sit quietly and draw with your child. Art is an outlet for self-expression. It helps everyone, including neurodiverse learners, reflect on and define their internal world.
Read Social Stories
Books aren’t only for academic research or studying for a test. They also aren’t only for enjoyment either. A category of books called social stories combines both these aspects to model behavior for children in a fun yet educational way.
Parents can read social stories aloud to model behavior and emotions. Then, you can open up discussions about why people may act or react a certain way.
Rely on Play-Based Activities
Play-based activities, such as acting out situations, allow children to practice sharing feelings without doing so in a direct way. In pretend play, stuffed animals or dolls stand in for people so children can work on expressing emotions in a safe and controlled space.
Practice With Emotion Cards
Picture cards can help by giving children options and visuals — a smiling face for happiness or a crying face for sadness. Children can point to the emotion that most closely identifies what they are feeling.
Take Your Time
When trying to help a child on the autism spectrum develop emotional awareness, regulation, and emotions, take your time! This is a lifelong skill that can be developed, worked on, and strengthened a little at a time.
This is not meant to be an overnight process. It may take months (or even years) of intentional practice to see the outcome.
We don’t want to overwhelm our children by putting a lot of expectations or responsibility on them to improve their emotional skills. Going into it with adjusted expectations and a relaxed attitude sets everyone up for success.
Calming Down From Heightened Emotions
If a child has trouble understanding their emotions, how can they be expected to calm themselves down? For this reason, it is essential to teach our children the steps to take to recognize emotions, label them, and choose a calming strategy to try.
You can study and review different emotions and ways to calm these emotions with your child. Writing a list of possible emotions and writing down bullet-pointed ways to calm down from each gives children a visual to go back to and reference as needed.
For example, if your child is angry, strategies such as deep breathing, counting, or taking a walk to calm down from this intense emotion can help.
- If your child is sad, they could draw a picture, seek affection, or make a list of positives to try to turn this emotion around.
- If a child is experiencing anxiety, they may practice visualization of a happy place, patterned breathing, or use deep pressure therapy.
- If they are experiencing joy, they may smile or laugh, share their happiness with someone close to them, or celebrate.
Whatever the feeling, it may help your child to have a clear plan to return to their emotional baseline. Of course, this is not something that can be put on them right away. It’s best taught when a child is in their window of tolerance.
This behavior can be modeled, rehearsed, studied, and reviewed over and over in hopes that one day your child will complete the steps independently. Modeling, practicing, and reviewing will set your child up for success in this area.
While children with autism may express emotions differently or struggle to express them in the ways we are used to, it does not mean that the feelings are not there. It’s possible to help them learn and practice skills to express their emotions, which is beneficial to their loved ones, but especially themselves.
With the right set of tools and care (along with the help of professionals), we can give our children opportunities to learn, have fun, and grow.