As adults, we typically identify and process our emotions and those of others automatically. It can feel effortless to us, but this is an important skill that autistic people can have difficulty with. There is hope. As a parent guide, you can help your child gain awareness of emotions, which will help them successfully navigate many aspects of their life.
Why Emotion Identification is Important
Children who cope well with their emotions are less likely to be aggressive, depressed, or physically ill due to stress, per Cara Bosler, Ph.D., and Laura Hubbs-Tait, Ph.D., Extension Oklahoma State University. These children are more likely to have higher grades, better self-esteem, and experience other positive outcomes.
Children with emotional intelligence are described by Bosler and Hubbs-Tait as having three key abilities:
- To label and talk about your own and other’s emotions
- To show emotions in appropriate ways
- To process and adjust to emotions in a healthy manner
Good Therapy describes Emotional Intelligence as, “The ability to identify and assess his or her emotional state, as well as the emotional state of others.”
Some psychologists believe that the concept of theory of mind explains why many autistics struggle with emotional intelligence. Per The Family Guidance and Therapy Center:
“According to the theory of mind, the better you are able to imagine the world from another person’s point of view, the better you’ll be able to understand, interpret, and react to their emotions.
You’ll be better able to empathize, understand what conversation topics are appropriate and anticipate how a person might respond to certain statements. The problem is that someone on the autism spectrum experiences the world differently.”
Emotional intelligence is also key to the development of the Six Areas of Dynamic Intelligence that are crucial to have a quality of life: Emotional Referencing, Social Coordination, Declarative Language, Flexible Thinking, Relationship Information Processing, and Foresight and Hindsight.
How to Help Your Child Identify Emotions
Through you being a role model, your child will learn about emotions and how to process them and express them appropriately by observation. This helps your child learn emotional awareness, the ability to identify and name their emotions, and the emotions of others. Your child learns to think, problem-solve, and regulate their emotions.
Teaching Emotional Intelligence in Early Childhood (Tominey, et al., 2017) published the following 4-step model that you can use as a parent of an autistic child to help your child obtain emotional intelligence:
Practice Emotional Skills
Recognize: How am I feeling? Use gesturing to model emotions. Describe how you feel, and how your emotions may affect the interactions that you have with others. Lead your child to model you, and your emotions.
Understand: What happened that caused these feelings? Throughout each day, feelings change. Identify and share with your child the things that lead to emotions, especially uncomfortable feelings. This can teach your child that emotions are normal and that they will occur, and to prepare to take appropriate action.
Label: How can I express what I am feeling at the moment? Model ways to express your feelings. “I am mad. I am sad. I am disappointed.” As you model the expression of your feelings, explain that you are giving your feelings a name and that there are different ways to express your emotions.
At home, consider stomping your foot once on the floor, “I am tired of this (frustrated)!” Then, pretend that you are at school, talking to a teacher, “I am mad. Someone took my notebook.” Explain that it is okay in some situations to say that you are mad, but it is not always okay to react in an inappropriate manner (like stomping your foot).
Regulate: How can I regulate what I am feeling? Model how you regulate emotions. Use real-life situations that include maintaining your feelings (when they are appropriate) or changing your feelings (because you do not want to continue feeling that way). This will teach your child how to manage emotions.
It is crucial to remember that as a parent guide, you must react to your child’s emotions in a supportive way to foster their emotional and social development, as well as emotional regulation. Your emotional state has a direct impact on how your child learns to process and act upon their own emotions (Mazzone, et al., 2017).
To help your child’s emotional growth:
- Avoid overreacting to your child’s emotions
- Trust that they will develop emotional intelligence (presume competence)
- Model emotional regulation
- React supportively (i.e., no shaming or punishing for having emotions)
- Explain that there are proper ways to react, and explain the consequences of poor choices
- Avoid telling your child that their feelings are wrong
Your autistic child’s emotional development requires repeated modeling and intentional real-life situational practice. It will take time for your child to learn to recognize, understand, label, and regulate their emotions accordingly and appropriately.
Resources for Education, Connection, and Support
You are not alone in this autism journey with your child. Whether you are new to the world of autism or have spent years trying to find answers, we can put you in touch with the resources and people to help you move forward. If you’d like to talk to RDI® professionals, parents just like you, and adults on the spectrum, join our online learning community.