Learning emotions in children with autism – emotion cards vs. interactions

Learning emotions in children with autism - emotion cards vs. interactions

Learning and recognizing emotions is an integrated and dynamic process influenced by biological factors, interactions with parents and peers, cognitive development, and cultural context. It is a complex interplay of neurobiological, cognitive, and sensory factors acquired through multiple stages of development and experiences.

Newborns are born with basic emotions, manifested in behaviors such as crying when they feel pain or discomfort and smiling when they feel satisfied. 

As their sensory integration develops, they begin to express emotions such as social smiling and more fine-grained emotional expressions (joy, sadness, fear, surprise) while simultaneously regulating their emotions with the help of their parents or caregivers. Later, through rich interactions throughout infancy, children become self-aware and recognize emotions such as shame, embarrassment, jealousy, and feelings about others. As language develops, they can verbalize their feelings, understand cause and effect, experience more complex emotions, and understand different emotions and social situations based on roles.

Attachment, social references, and modeling through social interactions are critical to the process of differentiating and regulating emotions. In secure attachment relationships, children begin to explore and understand their emotions, observing and modeling the emotional expressions and responses of parents, siblings, and peers. The social references and feedback during this process allow children to explore and differentiate more emotions.

But why do children with autism have challenges understanding and expressing emotions? There are neurobiological factors, of course. For example, individuals with autism have been shown to have differences in brain regions involved in emotion processing compared to the general population, which means that it’s not that they don’t know emotions but that the way they are perceived and interpreted may be different. In addition, problems with atypical connectivity in the brain can cause difficulties in integrating emotional information.

Despite the neurobiological challenges, the lack of interaction may be the primary obstacle to understanding emotions. Children who experience rich interactions, even with these challenges, may be better equipped to express and understand emotions. Increasing and enriching interactions is key to enhancing the ability to recognize and regulate emotions.

Real-life experiences through interactions allow for contextualization, the experience and understanding of the real feelings of emotions that can vary, and immediate feedback. Through this process, crucial social skills such as empathy, cooperation, and compromise can be developed. However, it is best to experience this with the parent or sibling to whom the child is most attached in the home, as it can be confusing or anxiety-provoking for a child with autism if it occurs in a real-life situation.

On the other hand, while tools like emotion cards may be more accessible to a child with autism, it’s important to remember that they do not provide the same depth and complexity of emotions as real-life experiences. Emotion cards lack the interpersonal relationships and real social situations that are crucial for applying and expressing emotions in real-life situations. Understanding these limitations can help you make informed decisions about the tools you use in your child’s development.

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