autism emotions and feelings

Teaching Feelings To Children On The Spectrum

Children on the spectrum often have challenges expressing and understanding emotions. The subtle social cues, that we take for granted, can be met with confusion or missed entirely. Teaching emotions isn’t like learning to count or identifying colors. Using multiple reinforcements through play and social stories is the approach that helped my son.

Through Early Intervention, we always paired labels (identifying words), signs (gestures), and social stories. For example, using a race car as the center of a social story (because he doesn’t pay attention to anything unless a car or truck is involved) we made the car sit and eat eggs. We used the signs for “eat” and “eggs”, made eating sounds effects, and acted out eating the delicious plastic eggs. It was totally silly but he was participating and eventually started to feed the car.

I couldn’t find any cars with different emotion faces, but I did find these cute wooden eggs created by Hape, called Eggspessions. These eggs are fun, tactile, and can be used in social stories.


When I first introduced the eggs, we just played with them. We rolled them around, pushed them down the slide, lined them up, and knocked them over with his cars. After a few days I started identifying the different faces on each egg. I paired the identifying word (label) with a very exaggerated expression, and the sign (or simple gesture). This way he was receiving visual, auditory, and tactile input to help learn what each face meant.

Eventually he started to memorize the label for each egg and began to copy my exaggerated acting of the matching emotion. (Are there Emmy’s for Mom’s because I was nailing these!). I wasn’t sure if he was understanding the connection to feelings, but still this was a giant first step for him.

Once the novelty of the eggs wore off, the next step was to start identifying emotions in the videos he was watching. I would sit next to him pointing out that puppy is “happy” or “oh, he fell and now he’s sad”.

While at the park one day, he saw a child fall and start to cry. He ran over to me, clearly uncomfortable by the situation. I signed and explained the child was “sad” and he repeated it back to me. It was starting to click!

He still has trouble identifying emotions when he’s feeling them, so I just keep labeling and signing when it’s appropriate.

We also installed a mirror in front of his activity table so he can practice mimicking the videos he watches. This is another great tool that has helped him learn about feelings.

To save a few bucks, you can create playful emotion props at home by drawing faces on paper plates and using popsicle sticks as handles. And remember to always pair the emotion label with an exaggerated action and the gesture.

Here’s a fantastic video that teaches a few basic feelings in ASL (American Sign Language):

Previously posted at Hudson Valley Parent Magazine.

*If you have any concerns about your child, please discuss with their pediatrician or contact your local school district or Early Intervention center for an evaluation.*