Read my Face

Child with face seen through the mesh of a sieve.

Image via Wikipedia

Autistic children struggle to identify other people’s emotions. Not being able to figure out when someone else is happy, sad, afraid or angry, can lead to a mess of other problems with their social interactions and behaviour more generally. I’m going to share some fun – and importantly, free – ways to try to get the message through, which I found effective for my son. They include verbal games, visual games, drawing games and even online games – something hopefully for everyone!

Consider using favourite foods or stickers as rewards for when they get the answers right in these games, but using rewards in the “right” way with these children can be a learnt skill in itself – using them in the wrong way can just raise anxiety and lead to meltdowns. If you’re not confident on using tangible rewards, try to stick to your own over-the-top social praise (“well done, good boy!”, plus huge smiles) instead. The online games I mention at the end of this post have the reward (the sound effects and visuals) built into them, making it easier.

It helps if you can get them started at matching the look of emotions to the name of the emotion, by labelling it every time they or someone near them shows an emotion. Many autistic children also struggle with pronouns, so early on it really helps to keep it as simple as possible. For example, use “James is sad”, “Mummy is happy” instead of “you are sad”, “I am happy”.

I also found that it helps to turn it into a fun game (when they are feeling settled – no good trying this is they are anxious). Tell them you are going to play a game, and say “look, mummy is happy!” and do an exaggerated huge smile. Then “look, mummy is sad” and really throw that pout out. If they look like they are catching on and are amused, you can try to get them to join in. “James’ turn, show mummy happy” and hopefully they’ll try to copy what you showed them. Or show an emotion as you say “Mummy is.. (long pause to give them a chance to fill in the blank)… happy!”

There are heaps of other ideas you can try too – such as drawing very simple faces. Just a circle that you fill in with eyes, nose, mouth, and eyebrows (an important feature of emotion), for each emotion that you introduce. Keep it slow, simple and repetitive. Consider spelling the word under each face – my son loves letters and words and this extra aspect would always attract his attention. Once they get the idea, start filling in circles with just the eyes and nose and eyebrows, and let them try to add the mouth to fit the emotion.

If they love computers, you can take them to a couple of helpful online games that particularly appeal to autistic children. It’s OK if your child can’t operate a mouse yet, just get them to point on the screen to what the answer is in the games. If they can’t point, try to do the pointing for them “is it this one… or this one..?”. If you can’t get them to respond verbally or physically but they are at least watching you play the game, go through it yourself and let them watch (and hopefully learn, or at the very least, be amused for a while!). The two games I’ve found most useful for this are:

“Robbie the Robot” from the Whiz Kids website – a website of games specifically created for autistic children. (I’ll be reviewing the value of other games from this website in future posts.) “Robbie the Robot” is a nicely paced game that teaches the child to identify happy, sad and angry.

If your child loves Thomas (or indeed, trains at all), then there’s a good chance he will respond well to the Emotions game, where he needs to identify who is happy, sad, surprised, angry and scared, from Thomas, Molly, Emily, Percy and James. Start with the Emotions game under the medium difficulty option (there is no “easy” version of this game). You might also have a go at the memory version of the Emotions game under “difficult”, but it really is that much harder.

There are endless ways to teach emotion to autistic children, just remember to keep it slow, simple, and fun. Try to teach by only focusing on the face – the rest of the body language thrown in can be overwhelming. Tailor the teaching to their own strengths and weaknesses. And don’t push them – if they aren’t in the right frame of mind to learn, they won’t, and you don’t want them to rebel against the games just because they associate it with an anxious experience. Try to have fun along the way yourself too – if they see you having fun they’ll be more likely to want to join in. Good luck!

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