Autism and Emotions

*This post is for information purpose only. Every person learns differently, so what works for one person, may not work for another. Always seek professional advice from educational and health care providers for personal care.

Have you ever heard of the expression: think with your head but follow your heart? Well, emotions, at times, can outweigh our logical thought process. So, understanding emotions can be difficult for someone, who is autistic.

Social Situations

social situation

My son is not an emotionless robot. He has compassion and is very loving and caring. One time, his younger cousin was upset, so he went over to her and handed her one of his toys to cheer her up. He just sometimes finds it hard to judge social situations to figure out what his emotional response should be. If you think about it, at a football match you could have some people crying, some may be angry and others very happy. One social scenario can spark a ray of different emotional responses, so this makes it hard for an autistic person to interpret. This relates to mindblindness, not being able to see someone else’s point of view.

The frustration of not understanding a social situation can provoke an emotional response of anger or upset. Sometimes we need to be mindful that some people need more time to process information. Not everyone knows how to react instantly in a situation.

Identifying Emotions

identifying emotions

When my son has trouble identifying emotions, he studies my face and logically matches my expressions to an emotion, however, can lack awareness of the depth of emotion. Recently he has mentioned that I confuse him. He said that I have five different laughs and that I only need one. He has been studying me in social situations to figure out when I use a harder laugh oppose to a softer one. He will imitate me by mimicking my laughs. To someone on the outside, it may seem as though he is mocking me when in fact he is just learning.

I remember a few years ago I would wait outside the school classroom for my son. He came out and chucked his bag at me because I was over smiling. My smile had to be like the other parents. He was not happy. His anxiety would build up throughout the day, and by the time I picked him up, from a scale of 1-10 he would be at a 10. Now he has several breaks throughout the day to regulate his emotions and to reduce his anxiety.

The School Run

school run

When my parents pick my son up from school, it is common that he will not speak to them. I am thankful that my parents are understanding and do not take this personally. My son has a going home routine. I would drive home not asking him any questions and then when we arrived, he would usually spend thirty minutes in his sensory den. After this he would speak to me then we would have dinner. He tends not to use the sensory den anymore and has moved onto ripping up cardboard and paper to create artwork. Now, when I pick my son up from school, he will speak to me! On the inside, I am jumping for joy. On the outside I have to act like this isn’t a huge achievement. Plus, I do not wish to embarrass him.

Reducing Anxiety

reducing anxiety

There are many ways to reduce anxiety caused by social situations and sensory overload. When times get too hard, me and my son enjoy being silly and dance around our home. In my previous blog: “SEND Support in Mainstream Schools,” I suggested having a sensory room or sensory garden at school. Play Therapy is another method used in some schools.

The motion of running sand and water can be very therapeutic. Blowing bubbles also helps with anxiety as it assists with controlling your breathing. Stress balls and fidget toys are handy too.

My son goes swimming once a week. Incorporating a physical activity helps reduce stress and anxiety. Working out improves emotional stability as endorphins are released, which gives us a happy sensation.

Emotions Activities

There are several emotions activities that you can incorporate into a person’s learning:

Traffic Light Wheel Autism Resource

Make One at Home:

  • On a piece of white card, draw out a circle and section it into a third.
  • Draw a happy face, a neutral face, and a sad face.
  • Colour in the sections: happy = green. ok = yellow. sad = red.
  • Laminate then cut out the circle.
  • Draw an arrow, laminate and cut it out. (You can use card as an alternative).
  • Use a split fastener. Push it through the arrow and through the middle of the circle.

Copyright © 2018 Positively ASD

Or you can print one off here from a template that I created above. Colour in the sections, cut out the wheel and arrow and then use a split fastener to push through the arrow at the centre of the circle.

Draw/Find the Other Half

Matching faces emotions activity
Matching Faces
match the angry face
Angry Face
  • You can draw around a circle for the faces then draw on the different expressions.
  • Next, cover half of one side.
  • Encourage the person to draw on the other side of what the emotion looks like. It can be easier for some autistic people to mirror symmetry.
  • Label the emotions so that the person can relate the image to the word.

Another method is to make the activity more interactive by duplicating a copy of the image. Then use Velcro so that the person can physically place the other half of the image onto the page.

Emotions Snap

Emotions Snap Activity
Emotions Snap Activity

Make One at Home:

  • Draw out some facial expressions twice.
  • Label the emotions.
  • Laminate. (An alternative option is to use card if you have no laminating pouches).
  • Cut out the emotions into square shapes.
  • Mix the cards up and play emotions snap.

Print off a template:

Copyright © 2018 Positively ASD

To add more visual appeal, you can colour in the faces:

sad and happy
Sad and Happy Faces

Emotions Thermometer

autism emotions scale, emotions thermometer
Emotions Scale
  • Draw a thermometer and colour in the sections.
  • Label the sections with emotions. Remember to have the calm emotions at the bottom and the more extreme emotions towards the top.
  • Draw circles and fill in the facial expressions.
  • Glue down the thermometer onto paper. Label the emotions 1-5 at the side.
  • Cut out some Velcro and place under the numbers.
  • Cut out a small image of the person and velcro. An alternative is to use a general cartoon image from online.
  • Encourage the person to place their image next to the emotion of how they are feeling at the time.

Play-Doh Faces

A fun way to help someone understand emotions is to make faces out of Play-Doh or putty.

play doh faces to express different emotions
Play-Doh Faces

Praise and focusing on positive behaviour are great ways to promote a happy response. You could use a reward chart for this.

Too much verbal input can be frustration so use as much visual support as possible. In general, we all need visual prompts at times. Social stories are always good to use.

Emotions Puzzle

I have created a puzzle as an idea for an activity on emotions. You could use a photocopy of a family member’s photo, which makes the activity more relatable to the person. For my son, I have used an image of myself, laminated it and cut it into four puzzle pieces.

a personalised emotions puzzle for autism, autism and emotions
Emotions Puzzle

Copyright © 2018 Positively ASD


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