Mother creates environment for children with autism.

When it comes to child development, we are often looking for typically developing milestones to help us understand where they may be developmentally. We use this method of measurement to determine emotional development, especially when children face experiences that involve emotions they may not yet understand. But what if your child’s development does not fit the typical mold? For parents of children who receive a diagnosis of autism, there is much more to consider. Let’s take a look at the neurotypical development of emotions, how emotional development may impact children with autism differently, and how we can foster growth within emotional intelligence and regulation through ABA therapy.

Understanding Neurotypical Emotional Development

To understand the world around us, we rely on our emotions. While we may never fully understand all that encompasses emotions, studies show that emotional development is the key to our health and wellness. This makes the role of parents, caregivers, and educators vital in facilitating healthy emotional development and growth in children.

While we know every child develops differently, there are three main steps to fostering emotional development:

  • Step 1: Social interaction focuses on the relationships your child shares with others, including relationships with adults and peers, from their ABA therapy team to classmates and siblings. As your child develops socially, they will learn to share, take turns, help their peers, play, interact together, and cooperate.
  • Step 2: Emotional awareness is the ability to recognize and understand their feelings and actions and the feelings and actions of others. Emotional awareness extends to how these feelings and actions affect them and those around them.
  • Step 3: Self-regulation is the ability to express feelings, thoughts, and behaviors in a socially acceptable way. For instance, learning to calm down when your child becomes angry or excited is essential.

According to the National Center for Safe and Supportive Learning Environments, healthy emotional development leads us on a path to five vital skills:

  1. Self-awareness
  2. Social awareness
  3. Emotional regulation
  4. Responsible decision making
  5. Relationship building

Mastering these skills greatly influences your child’s success at school, home, throughout their communities, and in society. When a child is unable to or does not receive proper developmental support and emotional guidance, they often struggle academically, physically, and behaviorally. A child’s inability to notice, understand, express, and manage their emotions, leads them to experience difficulty in various areas, including:

  • Bonding with others
  • Following directions
  • Focusing on and completing tasks

Emotional Development During the First Five Years

Emotional development is critical during the first five years of your child’s life. Without proper development, the three critical stages can impact your child’s development throughout all areas. Let’s take a look at emotional development during the first five years:

Birth to Age One

There are many debates on the range of emotions a baby experience. Most believe they are born with three, anger, fear, and happiness. Others believe their emotions extend to a broader range of emotions. We do know that babies during this stage of life are continuously discovering how things make them feel. They cry, scream, and coo to communicate happiness or displeasure as we attempt to nurture their needs.

Creating a consistent environment for your child at this stage gives them a sense of safety. Responding to your child’s communication during this stage gives them the green light to continue to explore the world around them, fostering emotional development in the process. Allowing them to learn self-soothing skills will help foster the ability to manage emotions as they grow. Most importantly, it is vital to express your own emotions and mirror your child’s. Expressing your emotions shows your child you understand how they feel, gives them guidance on new emotions and creates a strong bond as you help their emotional development.

Age Two to Three

Around this age, your child’s vocabulary is rapidly expanding. Finding more ways to incorporate their new vocabulary with their emotions will also increase. During this rough stage, encourage your child to navigate by using gestures and drawing pictures rather than tantrums and tears. Modeling and nurturing their emotional development are crucial during these challenging times. It is a critical period to work with your child on healthy, acceptable emotional responses.

Model a calm demeanor with your child, even during their tantrums. Be empathetic yet firm and validate their feelings. Help them explore ways to express their emotions and model words to express themselves to help expand their vocabulary. And always provide positive reinforcement to help reinforce positive behaviors and their redirection of unwanted behaviors.

Ages Three to Five

When your child is in the preschool stage, independence and social awareness begin to develop rapidly. Your child will encounter many situations and challenges, including:

  • Sharing
  • Conflict with peers
  • Listening to others
  • Thriving in a new environment

This stage is the best time to encourage independence through coping skills. Through strengthening their emotional development, you will supply your child with the tools they need to thrive when away from you and their natural environments.

Even at this young age, you can foster coping skills by teaching them strategic ways to calm themselves and handle situations. Teach them to find a quiet space and take a moment of alone time, color, or cuddle a favorite toy to self-soothe. Explain to your child the challenges they may face and validate that their feelings are entirely normal. Validation will strengthen your child’s emotional development progress and help them manage their behaviors and reactions.

Emotional Development in Children with Autism

Children with autism often experience difficulty in recognizing, understanding, and controlling their emotions. Nurturing their skills in emotional development will bring essential changes, helping them understand and respond in more appropriate ways.

By twelve months of age, a typically developing baby can read your facial cues and begin to determine which of the basic emotions you are portraying – happiness, sadness, anger, fear, or disgust. More complex feelings include joy, interest, embarrassment, shame, pride, guilt, envy, trust, contempt, and anticipation. The typically developing toddler starts to use their words to express feelings. But the emotional development in children with autism is quite different.

Children with autism find it difficult to read, understand, and display emotion.

You may notice your child struggling with challenges, including:

  • Recognizing the facial expressions you exhibit
  • Interpreting the emotions of others
  • Using emotional expressions
  • Responding appropriately to their feelings
  • Controlling their emotional responses or self-soothing
  • Lacking empathy

Ages and Stages of Children with ASD

Infants who later receive a diagnosis of ASD are typically able to recognize emotions similar to a typically developing baby. They are also able to show their feelings similarly to typically developing babies. However, these babies are usually much slower to develop their emotional responses as they age.

Early on, children with autism tend to show less interest in others’ feelings, emotions, and actions. They lack interest in sharing in the emotions of others or expressing social attention. Managing social situations by reading facial cues is also a significant obstacle, as they usually refrain from eye contact and, instead, read into what they see from the mouth.

By the time a child with autism reaches five to seven, they can recognize the basic emotions of happiness and sadness but cannot quickly understand more subtle expressions, such as anger, surprise, or fear. Children with less severe ASD may have the ability to show their feelings similar to how a typically developing child can yet may find it difficult to understand them well enough to describe these feelings. Children with more severe ASD tend to have less emotional expression than the typically developing child. They may appear to be emotionless, lack empathy, or respond quickly and erratically.

Strengthening Emotional Development in Children with Autism

Utilizing strategies your family learns during ABA therapy is ideal for strengthening emotional development in your child. Through the use of ABA therapy strategies, including positive reinforcements and modeling techniques, your child will begin to develop their ability to read, understand, express, and respond to their emotions and the emotions of others. Here are some helpful tips to assist your child in strengthening their emotional development:

  • Speak with your ABA therapy team for strategies and guidance they may recommend for your child
  • Continue to use positive reinforcement strategies you learn during ABA therapy sessions to help encourage and strengthen acceptable and desirable outcomes and behaviors
  • Strengthen communication by labeling their emotions in natural contexts. For example, if you’re reading a book with your child, point out emotions, and discuss the characters’ emotions. Talk about their facial expressions, the situations that led to a particular emotion reaction, and how other characters respond. Work on mimicking the emotions of the characters and discuss how the story makes you feel.
  • Respond to your child’s emotions often, both positive and negative. Let them know you see the smile on their face and enjoy seeing how happy they are.
  • Validate their feelings. Help them understand you see their anger or frustration. If they use undesirable responses, use your ABA therapy techniques and strategies, such as modeling, to reinforce acceptable behavior.
  • Encourage eye contact often. This strategy helps your child learn to scan faces more effectively for emotional cues.
  • Draw your child’s attention to others in the room. Doing so is a powerful ABA therapy technique that encourages your child to absorb the emotional and behavioral responses others exhibit.
  • Play! We know young children learn through play and exploration, which is an exceptional tool to use when strengthening emotional development.
  • Utilize educational tools similar to those your child uses during ABA therapy sessions. Emotion flash cards use pictures of faces to demonstrate the basic emotions on the real or cartoon faces.
  • Use social stories to help explain various social situations and responses to your child. Social stories are highly useful tools your ABA therapy team will often use – a story or comic strip conversation demonstrating how your child feels and how others feel.

Creating an Ideal Environment for Children with Autism

Children with autism thrive on structure and routine. Following a set schedule can help limit confusion, emotional stress, and outbursts in any situation. There are many ways you can create an environment that feels safe, familiar, and nurturing while fostering emotional development, learning, growth, and strengthening of your child’s ABA therapy goals:

  • Set up an easy to follow, predictable routine. Your child will develop security and a sense of control with a reliable routine. Communicate before and during transitions and consider utilizing a family calendar or picture chart easily accessible to your child. It’s useful when unexpected changes are necessary for your day’s schedule. Discussing a visitor, a trip to the doctor, or ABA therapy session while physically manipulating your schedule display can help relieve emotional distress and create a sense of relief knowing what is to come.
  • Continue to provide books, toys, and activities that are appropriate to your child’s developmental age. Choose items that will engage them and hold their attention and allow you or siblings to play along. Be sure to use these opportunities to model emotion through words and facial expressions.
  • Provide your child with plenty of learning tools and activities without overstimulating them. If you begin to see signs of frustration, anxiety, or anger, help them control emotions through words, breathing, and encouraging self-soothing strategies.
  • Allow your child choices that help them feel their input and decisions are essential. Follow their lead when appropriate and talk through emotions such as noticing how happy a particular book makes them while you read together, or how well they are sharing with a sibling. Encouragement and praise will instill positive emotional growth.
  • Talk through emotions often and in every environment. Share your feelings, revealing matching facial expressions. Use every opportunity to model, point out, and discuss emotions and responses. Provide reassurance that every environment is a safe space for them to express themselves while utilizing ABA therapy strategies when necessary.

Nurturing and strengthening your child’s emotional development, primarily through their first five years of life, is essential in their continual growth and wellness. Through proper resources, support, and your ABA therapy team, you’ll arm yourself with the knowledge necessary to help your child thrive in all areas of development. For more information on programs and services for your child and family, we invite you to visit our center and meet our highly trained ABA therapy team.

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