Sunday, April 1, 2018

Emotions in the Autism Classroom

I teach a social skills curriculum with a focus on recognizing and labeling emotions in self and others. We do a lot of work in that class around matching emotions to their associated behaviors, both the classic NT expressions, and students personal expressions of those emotions. 

A number of years ago, I was teaching in a very bad situation involving bulling and emotional abuse. I was too naive and oblivious at the time to be aware of much of what was happening until the situation got really bad, which is a familiar refrain for anyone who is or loves someone with significant social communication challenges. I thought I was handling it. I thought I had someone in my classroom I could trust. I was very wrong on both counts.

The instructional data from the class I was teaching at the time was very clear: the students could match feelings to behaviors given pictures, but when using video, or during role-play, they were unable to even identify how someone was feeling. Even when the actions were labeled for them (the same actions as the pictures they had memorized) they were unable to connect it to the feelings.

Yet, toward the end of my experience there, when things got really bad, my students made it very clear that they were very aware (more aware than I, myself, was) of the emotional situation in the room. One student, every time both staff were in the room, came up to me asking “Sad? Cry?” Long before I knew what was going on, another student, who had no history of aggression, began attacking the staff member who was the primary source of the abuse.

The instructional data is clear, these students did not understand emotions and their connections to behavior. But the evidence of what they did proves the data to be wrong, or at least incomplete. They couldn’t show their understanding in an academic or assessment context, but they did one better. They demonstrated them in real-world context with the people that mattered to them and had influence over their lives. Isn’t that the whole point of teaching the academic skills in the first place?


  1. It sounds like your students who knew what was happening to you got the most important things right. I wonder if they knew what they knew and were able to explain to themselves or others why they were reacting that way? I know one of the hardest things about feeling others' emotions while having limited executive function is reacting to things sometimes, not knowing why. Both the emotions themselves and one's own reactions can be confusing and upsetting. Maybe this is where your class can help most?

    It sounds like your students have a hard time visually recognizing and labeling emotions when the visuals are moving (interesting!). I wonder if it would be easier, and more relevant for them, to focus on how emotions feel in their body? Or recognizing their own and others' feelings from small changes in behavior (E.g., nervous habits), or tone of voice?

    1. It’s a good question. None of the students had the expressive language to easily answer at the time (nor did it occur to us to ask.) Something to keep in mind to fold into the curriculum for the future though!

      As I’ve modified and improved the curriculum over the years, I’ve found we spend most of our time exactly where you suggest, focusing on how emotions feel in our own bodies as manifested as behaviors - big and small - it builds right into talking about what is a big challenge and what is a small challenge. I’ve never brought voice tone into it (probably because I’m really bad at it!) but I know my students are very responsive to it, so that’s definitely something to think about. Thanks for your input!