Complex emotions and empathy. Guys, these are some seriously tricky concepts. Most typically developing humans just “get it,” but for our students with social communication disorders the struggle is real. When we instinctively understand empathy and complex emotions, teaching these emotional literacy skills to our students with Autism is a struggle.
So how do we find the words to teach something that we intrinsically know, but have rarely tried to articulate? First, we start by teaching emotional literacy. Emotional literacy is “the ability to recognize and understand the feelings and needs of yourself and others” (Davis, K.G. 2017). (You can read more about emotional literacy here). When I say we need to teach our students to understand their feelings, I am not talking about just happy, sad, and mad. We need to really delve into those complicated emotions such as frustration, anxiety, pride, and relief.
Here is how I would go about teaching emotional literacy skills to my students with Autism:
- Choose the emotions you want to target. Each person is different, so the emotions you choose are going to be individualized based on your student’s needs. Generally speaking, I try and choose an area of greatest need, or, I like to start with an easy concept and scaffold upon that skill into a more difficult one. For example, I might start with mad and then talk about frustration. Or I might start with scared and then introduce anxious.
- I always like to begin teaching a new task with an engaging introduction activity. Using GIFs is a really fun way to introduce emotions. GIPHY has both an app and a website that allows you to type in an emotion and watch GIFs for that particular emotion. This is a fun way to introduce a new emotion before you begin to talk about it in-depth.
- After a topic has been introduced, I begin to explicitly teach the targeted skill. When teaching emotions, I begin by defining the emotion and giving common examples. I also want my students to get really good at identifying situations that might make them feel the targeted emotion. For example, first I would explain that frustration is a feeling of upset or annoyance you experience when you can’t do something you want to do. Next, I would give examples of things I find frustrating, such as slow internet, long lines, or not being able to fall asleep. Then, I would have my students try and generate a list of things they find frustrating.
- Up until this point I have only been having students think about their feelings, but the next step is to encourage our students to think about how a situation might make someone else feel. I make a chart and have my students pick someone they know. We pick an emotion and list things that make us feel that way. Then we create a list of things that would make the person they picked feel that same emotion. We talk about why we think the other person might feel that way and we look for any similarities and differences. Going back to the frustration example, I would say that I feel frustrated when my baby cries. If the person I was comparing emotions with was my son, I might say that I think he feels frustrated when he can’t do a puzzle. My son and I probably both get frustrated when the baby cries, because it is loud. I don’t get frustrated by the puzzle, because I am able to do puzzles.
- Drill and practice. Continue to challenge your students to think about a wide range of situations and predict how those situations would make them feel.
This is so much information and we haven’t even talked about empathy yet! Stay tuned for the next blog post in this series to learn more about teaching empathy.
In the meantime, if you would like to learn more about teaching empathy and complex emotions, check out my resource “How to Teach Empathy and Complex Emotions”. This resource contains activities to help you teach complex emotions and empathy using the strategies outlined in this post.
I hope this post gave you a new perspective on teaching these emotional literacy skills to your students with Autism. If you have any other tips or strategies, please leave them in the comments below so everyone can learn something new!
Davis, K. G. (2017, April 6). Strategies for Helping Clients With Autism Learn Empathy. Retrieved from https://blog.asha.org/2017/04/06/strategies-for-helping-clients-with-autism-learn-empathy/
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