Simple Steps to Teach Teens with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) to Effectively Communicate Emotions – Part One

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Simple Steps to Teach Teens with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) to Effectively Communicate Emotions – Part One

3-13 Colors

At Heritage, some of our adolescents with ASD have difficulty understanding and expressing how they are feeling to others. Sometimes this is because they don’t know how to take what they are experiencing and put it into words. They don’t know what abstract words like “depressed,” “excited,” “overwhelmed,” “jealous,” “embarrassed,” “scared” or “confident” mean, especially when it is something they are experiencing in the moment. To be clear, linguistically they sometimes have heard or know the general idea behind these types of words, but they don’t know how to translate their own experiences into words they can label and then share with others.

With students who struggle in this manner I have learned the best way to teach comprehension and expression of emotion is to start simple, go slow and then build toward more complexity as concepts are not just understood but mastered over time.

Step One: Teach teens with ASD to identify feelings based on their related energy levels using a color-based zones system.

Talking about being in the “blue” (slow or low energy), “green” (calm or normal energy), “yellow” (elevated energy) and “red” (extreme or out-of-control energy) zones can help teens start to think about their energy levels as different feelings come up.

BLUE ZONEGREEN ZONEYELLOW ZONERED ZONE
“Running Slow”

Low Energy

“Good to Go”

Normal Energy

“Caution”

Elevated Energy

“Out of Control”

Extreme Energy

 

Use the zones as you talk about your own feelings as well as theirs and they will start to understand the language and then, with practice, begin to use it themselves as they experience different feelings. You might say things like “I’m in the green zone today because I have the energy I need to stay on task and get things done.” You could also say to your teen “You seem to be in the yellow zone because you can’t stay seated at the dinner table while we are all talking and eating.”

Step Two: Teach them feeling words that are associated with each colored zone.

After they have really caught onto the idea of using the zones to notice their feeling-related energy levels you can next talk to them about words for feelings associated with each zone. Here are some examples of feelings in each zone:

BLUE ZONEGREEN ZONEYELLOW ZONERED ZONE
Sad

Tired

Sick

Bored

Shy

Exhausted

Depressed

Good

Calm

Thankful

Relaxed

Content

Proud

Happy

Excited

Frustrated

Nervous

Silly

Annoyed

Confused

Embarrassed

Mean

Mad

Angry

Aggressive

Terrified

Out of Control

Elated

 

If your child is a visual or kinesthetic learner it might help to put up a colored paper or poster board for each zone (blue, green, yellow, and red) somewhere in your home and then come up with a list of words to write or tape on each one as you develop this idea together.

You can pair the feeling words with the zones as you experience and express them in your daily life. You might say something like, “I think I’m in the yellow zone. I feel stressed because I have so much work I have to do today.” You could encourage your teen to pick a feeling word that matches whatever zone he or she feels as opportunities present themselves and praise their efforts when they do this on their own spontaneously too.

In coming posts I will continue presenting more steps for helping your ASD teen develop ways to effectively recognize and express their emotions. Take your time on the steps above. These are life-long skills that will help them in their communication. In this case, please remember that slowing down and waiting for mastery of each concept, in the end, makes the ultimate successes come faster. Remember this mantra: “Slower is faster.”

The ideas from this post come from “The Zones of Regulation: A Curriculum Designed to Foster Self-Regulation and Emotional Control,” written and created by Leah M. Kuypers, MA Ed. OTR/L.

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