Understanding emotions – supporting the well being and spiritual development of learners with autism through learning about feelings

A child’s emotional, social and psychological wellbeing influences their future health, education and social prospects (Lawson, 2015).

A significant area of challenge faced by people with autistic spectrum conditions (ASC) is that of emotions (Hadwin et al, 2009); this area affects the way in which they interact with both their own feelings and those of others.

For many people the more immediately pressing of these, for those with learning difficulties, sensory processing disorders, behavioural difficulties and many other traits often experienced by people with autism is in understanding and controlling their own emotions, especially when these emotions are negative (Well, 2012). Struggling to understand and control ones own emotions can effect behaviour, social relationships, family well-being, achievement in school, levels of stress and anxiety and mental health, having a massively detrimental impact on an individual’s life and that of their family, class mates and school staff.

The second area of emotion-related challenge is a difficulty with empathy – understanding and responding to the feelings of others. Due to an underdeveloped theory of mind (ToM) people with ASC can find it difficult to attribute mental states to others, to work out what someone is thinking or feeling. Importantly, people with ASC do not struggle with all aspects of empathy, most are caring people who feel a drive to respond appropriately to another person’s emotions, this is called Affective empathy (Cohen, 2015).

People with autism often struggle to process faces, this leads to a difficulty in recognising emotions from facial Expressions (Ryan, Charraga´in, 2010). Although people with ASC and more severe learning difficulties can learn to recognise facial expressions, it is more difficult, for them to learn a genuine understanding of the mental states of others, including emotions (Hadwin, 1995).

Feelings are an important part of our selves so learning about them is significant in our spiritual development. Thus schools hoping to improve well-being should seek to help learners to identify and respond to emotions, perhaps to even be able to modify them in times of stress.

A number of attempts have been made to teach emotion recognition skills to children and adults with autism (Bo¨lte et al. 2006; Golan and Baron-Cohen 2006). Swettenham (1996) reports that using computers to teach emotions is reasonably effective because computers involve no social factors; they are consistent and predictable; and they allow the learner to control the work at their own pace.

In recent years books and resources have been produced to support people with Asperger’s syndrome or high functioning autism, for example the STAMP treatment manual or Zippy’s Friends Special Needs Supplement.

Whilst these have been found to be useful for high functioning children with ASC, they have not had the same results in children with a specific diagnosis of autistic disorder with co-morbid intellectual disability (Williams, Gray and Tonge, 2012) such as those with severe communication and cognitive deficits, severe autistic features, relationship and engagement problems (Lawson, 2015). While these and other resources are worth investigating for ideas, there is very little produced specifically for people with severe learning difficulties and autism.

Some ideas to include in your curriculum to work on feelings are:

Feelings – The Transporters – The Transporters is a DVD series which was produced in association with the autism research centre in Cambridge, the result of research into the difficulty children with autism face with theory of mind. It uses vehicles onto which human actors’ faces have been transposed as its characters to teach about emotions. The sessions can be extended with a further pack of resources available from the website but these look as if they may be more suitable for higher functioning individuals.


The blurb on the website tells us:

“Children with autism tend to love vehicles. In particular, children with autism love vehicles that move predictably – like trams, cable cars and trains. They tend to dislike objects that move unpredictably.

With The Transporters, children who don’t naturally want to look at real people’s unpredictable faces are encouraged to do so because they are “grafted” onto beautifully predictable, attractive vehicles.” http://www.thetransporters.com/about.html

The series has been evaluated by the Autism Research Centre for its effectiveness for children aged 4 to 8 with ASC (autistic spectrum condition). “The results suggest that The Transporters DVD is an effective way to teach emotion recognition to children with ASC and that the learning generalises to new faces and new situations.”

However, an Austrlian study (Williams, Gray, and Tonge, 2012) found that the effect of using The Transporters is most suited to children with high functioning autism as the effects are negligible in people who have ASC and severe learning difficulties.


Feelings – Talk about feelings – Discussing and matching feelings in class groups is possible in some settings, depending upon the ability of the learners. One colleague finds that her learners engage well in a feelings sharing task. Each learner has a board onto which are printed symbols for happy, sad, poorly, tired, excited, feelings symbols and photos of their classmates and staff. Learners and staff take it in turns to use symbols to say how they feel and they record each other’s feelings on their boards. This prompts an opportunity to make a comment on how many people’s photos are in each feeling category.

The aim of these sessions is to recognise symbols that can be used to communicate feelings, to listen to their peers, match symbols and use appropriate language to express feelings.

Feelings – iPad apps – I have not found anything that has worked for all learners in my class but this app, Autism Emotion, has been popular and useful with 2 of the young people I have taught. In both cases it has seemed to help extend their vocabulary and led to one of them using relevant words to describe her feelings before getting too anxious.

The maker’s blurb:

Autism Emotion™ is a great visual teaching tool for helping your child learn about different emotions through photos, text, narration, and music. The App includes four emotions; Happy – Sad – Calm – Proud. Each emotion contains a photo slide show of a child experiencing a specific emotion.

Touch the forward and back buttons to move through the photos one by one. Or simply press the slide show button to advance photos automatically. The app also includes audio narration (English), descriptive text of each photo, and songs by Music Therapist Rachel Rambach.

For each of these activities learners are aiming to recognise emotions and use appropriate language to label them.



Our Class Feelings Session

Despite this contradictory evidence, my experience of using the Transporters in my classes has been very positive.

I try to have daily ‘Feelings’ session. We sit together in an environment that is not over stimulating, I show an A4 symbol for ‘feelings’ (made on the program Communicate in Print, a tool I find invaluable) then we sing and sign, using Makaton, a song about feelings in order to queue learners into the activity (I use The Feelings Song by KIDSTV123 available on www.youtube.com, a colleague does something similar using ‘Lean on Me’). We then share a sensory story that involves signing each of the feelings that we have introduced. We then discuss our own feelings, selecting an emotion from a choice board, this supports learners with communication as they make a full sentence using either their voices or symbols to say ‘I feel (emotion)’. One of my learners has the ability to record information; he is supported to produce a bar chart to represent the spread of emotions within the class. We then watch an episode of The Transporters and end with a quiz on the interactive whiteboard; this is provided on the Transporters DVD.




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