Program: Recognizing & Labeling Emotions

There is SO much I could say about teaching emotions, the complexities of nonvocal communication, facial scanning, emotional self-regulation, perspective taking and “mind reading” that this post could go on for pages and pages. So to keep things concise, I will focus on specifically teaching a child to recognize and label the emotions of others.

This really isn’t even a topic specific to Autism. Many young children struggle with identifying the emotions of others, and being able to respond appropriately. Many of us know of that emotionally immature 3, 4, or even 7 year old who struggles to make and keep friends, due to annoying and outrageous behavior. They play silly, rude, or mean jokes on their friends that no one else finds funny. They don’t seem to notice when their friends are upset, sad, or embarrassed. They are uncomfortable with their friends crying around them, and instead of asking “What’s wrong?” they just walk away.

Although typically thought of as a social skill, learning to identify emotions can also influence communication, play skills, academic success, and even the ability to get and keep a job. Just think about a 17 year old with Aspergers who tells inappropriate sex jokes at work because he can’t tell when other people are annoyed. Or a 7 year old with Autism who can’t maintain friendships because he never looks at his friends faces.

I love teaching emotions because it is a life skill that is vital to meaningful interaction with society, but a specific reason I love emotion programs is because my kiddos have to look at faces in order to learn the skill. Many children with Autism will go to great lengths to avoid looking at someone’s face, or especially into someone’s eyes. Yet most nonverbal communication happens in the face, and in the eyes. So whether I’m holding up a flashcard or making exaggerated facial expressions, beyond teaching the child to label an emotion I am also teaching them that a key to understanding other people is their face. 

The sooner you can start teaching emotions, the better. Understanding emotions is a pivotal skill that opens pathways to a variety of other skills.  Always be sure to model appropriate facial expression, voice tone, and affect when demonstrating a behavior. If you are modeling “happy” then talk in a louder tone of voice, smile, widen your eyes, and clap your hands or shout “Hooray”. Do more than just make a face. When teaching a child with Autism the skill of recognizing emotions, it is helpful to exaggerate. Many of these kiddos don’t want to look at someone’s face, so give them a reason to want to study your face. Put your inner actor/actress to the test and really give it your all. If you are modeling sad, pretend to cry, talk in a quivering voice, and lower your head. Demonstrate the depth of emotion you want the child to mimic.

Emotion programs can become quite complex, or can be taught in a very simple way, just depending on the age and functioning level of the child. A toddler with PDD can be taught to touch the “happy” doll and the “sad” doll. Or a teenager with Autism can be taught to watch a short video clip of a couple breaking up, and then discuss how each person felt (yes, that could be a way to teach emotions. I told you emotion programs are fun!).

Depending on how the child communicates, you can begin teaching emotions receptively or expressively. Unless the kiddo is a strong vocal communicator, I usually will start a program receptively (“Touch sad”) and then move to expressive (“How does she/he feel?”). There are 9 main emotions that you want to be sure to teach, and beyond these 9 I usually consult with the primary caregivers to see how complex they want to get:

Happy, Sad, Angry, Surprised, Scared, Confused, Sleepy, Bored, Shy

Here is a sample hierarchy of teaching basic emotions:

Receptively identify common emotions
Expressively identify common emotions
Identify/Label own emotional state
Label/discuss social scenarios ("playing, fighting", etc)
Discuss emotional regulation strategies ("I feel angry, so I should take 5 deep breaths")

Once a child can understand emotions, you will find that its often much easier to prompt appropriate social interactions (“You hurt your friends feelings, look, she’s crying”), generalize those skills to self - regulation (“You look like you’re upset, lets go take a walk”), help children communicate better (“When you yell and make that face it makes me think you’re angry. I need you to ask me nicely with a calm face”), etc. The importance of teaching children with Autism to understand emotions cannot be overstated.

**Quick Tip: Parents, as your child’s 1st teacher be sure to model a wide range of emotions for your child with Autism. I often find that my clients are strongest on two emotions: mad and happy. Often the reason why is those are the emotions they see the most on the faces of their parents…super happy with a big smile, or very angry with a raised voice. What about fear? Embarrassment? Pride? Excitement? When was the last time you let your child see you afraid? It may sound like an odd thing to model, but for a child with Autism your face may be the only face they are comfortable looking up into. Don’t be afraid to let your child see your vulnerability, and a range of emotions.

Resources on teaching Emotions:




  1. Good info! This is a great resource about emotional awareness and recognition. However, I do not love ABA. Most Autistic adults who have received this intervention find it abusive and harmful.

    1. Yes, there are people who publicly speak out against ABA. Thanks for reading.


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