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

In my previous blog (Click here) I illustrated how a parent can help their ASD teenage son or daughter learn effective ways to recognize and communicate emotions. I covered these steps:

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

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

In this entry I will continue with:

Step Three: Teach them that emotions often are expressed on spectrums and help them identify and use words for different levels of emotions.

Many teens are hesitant to experiment with expressing degrees of emotions. They stick with overbroad words like “upset,” “bored,” “fine” or even “I don’t know” because they’re safer to use and people seldom follow up and question what is really being said or felt when teens use words like these. (Neurotypical adults also tend to overuse generic words and phrases, by the way. But they sometimes do this for different reasons.)

You can use the zones to teach this concept to teens by asking them to identify emotions in each colored zone that are on the same spectrum. For example, the spectrum of feeling worried could look something like this:

Worry Relaxed Anxious / Worried Freaking Out

Notice there isn’t a Blue zone word for “worry” since that feeling doesn’t tend to get expressed with reduced energy levels. (If your teen is interested enough in the blank space on the chart, you might bring up worry-related concepts that lead into feelings in the Blue zone such as “avoidance” leading to feeling “tired,” but that might be overkill for the purposes of teaching the basics of emotional expression to an ASD teen.)

Here are some more examples:

Excitement Bored Calm Excited Uncontainable Excitement
Anger Moody Not bothered Irritated / Frustrated Angry / Aggressive
Sadness & Happiness Depressed Content Happy / Joyful Overjoyed
Disgust Not bothered Disgusted “Really Sick”
Gratitude Didn’t notice Appreciative Really Thankful Overcome with gratitude

After teaching your teen about the degrees of emotions that exist, you can have them practice identifying more precisely their actual emotions as they come up in daily life. At first this might look like, “You told me you were angry, but I wonder if ‘frustrated’ wouldn’t be a better word for it since you still seem to be in control of yourself and are asking me to help you solve the problem.” Later, as your teen picks up on the degrees of feelings, you can ask them to clarify using lists of options such as, “Which word best describes how you feel right now? Calm, annoyed, irritated, frustrated, angry, mad or enraged?” Finally, you can praise them as they start to use more descriptive feeling words in their daily expression of emotion. “I love how you helped me understand just how you are feeling by saying you were ‘annoyed’ by this school assignment.”

Bonus thought: Another step you can take throughout this process to reinforce use of more descriptive feeling words is to make it a game with your ASD teenager. For example, you could make it a challenge for you and your teen (and perhaps others in your family) to use more descriptive words for your feelings as you go through the day. You might even track points to see who uses new emotion words the most often and have a reward at the end of the week (something small like a candy bar can be quite motivating) and the competitive nature of the game can help you and your teen focus on using more descriptive feeling words.

There will be more steps to come in future blog posts. Remember to take these steps at a slow pace and wait for a degree of mastery before moving on to further steps. “Slower is faster.”

We highly recommend reading:

“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.

Step Three is an adaptation from The Zones of Regulation.