Emotions & Autism: Ways to Teach Your Child to Deal with Emotions

By Sanika Natu, M.A Clinical Psychology

Many of us don’t even have to think twice before responding to a compliment or gauging what someone might be feeling based on their body language. For someone on the spectrum, however, this can prove to be a difficult task.

Intrinsically, emotions can be messy and confusing for children to deal with. Add autism to the mix, and it might end up creating situations that are overwhelming and distressing.

Autism affects children’s ability to perceive as well as regulate and identify their emotions. You might’ve noticed your child struggle to convey what they might be feeling, and this might even trigger mood swings or meltdowns.

Experts call this ‘emotional dysregulation,’ which means that the child’s emotional response is not regulated and is different from what we normally expect. This is one of the most prominent features of autism.

Autistic children might need a little extra help in learning to recognize, perceive and express emotions.

Here are a few ways you can help your child effectively deal with their emotions –

Emotion Picture Cards

Emotion picture cards are great for helping your child recognize and pinpoint emotions through facial expressions. They are also helpful in developing expressive language skills which will help your child in learning to describe their own emotions.

Emotion picture cards contain photos with a particular emotion being portrayed clearly as well as photos with emotions that seem ambiguous – these will help your child generate a variety of interpretations, thus, encouraging him to develop a deeper sense of understanding of emotions and how they are portrayed.


Practice identifying emotions in real-life situations

While learning to identify emotions through emotion picture cards is very effective, children need to be able to generalize these skills in real-life situations.

You can practice identifying emotions in everyday situations by simply asking, ‘What could this person be feeling right now?’ This can be done by observing the people around you or even through observing characters in movies.

Learning to identify and label emotions in real-life situations will help your child apply these skills in their own social interactions.


Have a coping strategy in place

For days that feel extra difficult and your child feels overwhelmed by her emotions, having a coping strategy in place really helps. Work with your child to identify a particular activity or even a list of activities that help her calm down when she feels distressed. This can be as simple as a tight hug or playing with a favorite sensory toy.

Make a list of things that help your child calm down and create a visual chart demonstrating each activity. When your child feels overwhelmed, ask her to choose an activity from the list. Don’t forget to follow the successful use of the coping skill with verbal praise!


Use role-play to demonstrate various emotions and effective ways to deal with them

Role-play activities work well to help children learn about emotions. You can create a diverse range of scenarios and act out the emotions through appropriate verbal and non-verbal cues. This will help your child learn ways to identify emotions as well as learn new ways to respond to these emotions.

You can also use your child’s favorite toys or puppets to act out these scenarios.


Lastly, the most important thing is to have strategies in place for yourself for when your child has difficulty with his emotions.

As a parent, it can be quite difficult to stay calm in situations where your child is distressed, but remember that the way you react to the situation is going to have a direct impact on your child’s behavior. Make sure you practice your own calm down strategies and stay as consistent with these strategies as possible.

Dealing with emotions can be a scary process for your child. As a parent, you might need to try a few strategies with your child before you find the one that works. It is completely OK to take your time in finding what works best for your child.


“Sanika Natu has a Master’s degree in Clinical Psychology and has experience in working with children.

Sanika is passionate about destigmatizing mental health in India, and her work in that area includes a study on emotional empathy, resilience and mental well-being among young adults, besides writing articles for iSmartmoms.”

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