As a parent, you’ve already discovered that recognizing and regulating emotions can be hard for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). While difficult, it is possible for you to help your child with autism grow in emotional development, which can help them understand and respond to family, friends, and others in their life more appropriately.
Our ability to read and express emotions begins developing from birth. According to Dr. Amanda Richdale of La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia, we each 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. When a child is on the autism spectrum, they often find it hard to:
- recognize facial expressions and their attached emotions
- copy or use emotional expressions
- understand and control their own emotions
- understand and interpret emotions — they might lack, or seem to lack, empathy with others
Helping your child from home doesn’t have to be difficult for you or them. You can help your child with autism begin to express their emotions in an acceptable manner using these therapy techniques and tools.
- Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA). According to Autism Speaks, behavior analysis is a safe, scientifically validated approach to understanding behavior and how the environment affects it. In this context, “behavior” refers to actions and skills. “Environment” includes any influence — physical or social — that might change or be changed by your child’s behavior. ABA principles and techniques can foster basic skills such as looking, listening, and imitating, as well as complex skills such as reading, conversing, and understanding another person’s perspective. Just as any other medical treatment program, ABA should be directed by a qualified medical professional.
- Play therapy. Play therapy can help your child with autism emotionally connect and bond with you. Unlike adults, young children are not able to discuss their feelings with words; instead they use play. This is why children play “house” or “school” and repeating the similar phrases they may have heard from you. This form of play helps your child make sense of his or her world. Contacting a local counseling center can get you on the road to finding a qualified play therapist to help your child.
- Picture cards. The best learning device for children with autism are visual aids. Picture cards can build language in place of speech for nonverbal forms of autism. These tools demonstrate visuals of life skills, and basic tasks such as how to brush your teeth or get dressed. To teach feelings, picture cards can illustrate people’s facial expressions.
- Social Stories. Created by autism expert Carol Gray, Social Stories, teaches your child social skills through stories that demonstrate common social situations. Then your child will also learn how to respond to the situation. Stories that show feelings with the appropriate emotional responses help autistic children learn and understand emotions in the appropriate context.
When your child has autism, his or her understanding of others rises and falls on how they interpret emotions. This is why helping your child with autism read and respond to expressions and emotions will give them tools necessary to better communicate and interact with others.
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