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Using Lego and other visual supports to help Autistic children understand emotions

January 22, 2024

For many children on the autism spectrum, reading facial expressions is a daily struggle.  Is my teacher happy with me or irritated?  Is my sister worried or is she sad? Many children with autism can have a difficult time determining what other people are thinking and feeling, and because of this, struggle to partake in what neurotypical people may deem normal social interactions. One of the biggest misconceptions is that autistic individuals lack emotions. As most parents with children with autism will attest to, ASD children don’t necessarily lack emotions, they just have more difficulty identifying them. And when they can’t decipher basic social cues and communicate like their peers, the situation can become frustrating and a bit overwhelming.

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Simply put, Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is not a single disorder, but a group of developmental disabilities with a shared core of symptoms that can cause considerable social, communication and behavioral challenges. The symptoms and level of abilities and disabilities for every individual varies greatly. From communication and social skills to the ability to show emotion and empathy,  everyone is vastly different.  And when approximately 1 in 68 children has been identified with ASD according to estimates from CDC’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring (ADDM) Network, that adds up to a significant number of people who could benefit greatly from social therapy tools and techniques.

Here are three excellent visual supports parents and teachers can use to give children on the spectrum some extra help with identifying feelings and emotions:

Feelings and Emotions Charts

A poster or printable with illustrations of people’s faces is an excellent option when trying to help an ASD child identify feelings and emotions. The LEGO Moods print entitled, How Do You Feel Today is an example of a tool children of all ages and different genders can relate to. Identifying feelings will help both parents and children with autism communicate. There are numerous ideas online for home-made charts and games centered on identifying emotions and pre-made tools available for purchase.

Using lego to help autistic children understand emotions
Using Lego and other visual supports to help Autistic children understand emotions

Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS)

Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS)

Since children on the spectrum are known to learn well through visual aids, PECS and/or picture cards may serve as an excellent tool to help an autistic child better identify different emotions. Created in 1985 by Andy Bondy and Lori Frost (based on B.F. Skinner’s book Verbal Behavior) as an alternative communication tool, PECS can be used by individuals affected by autism to better convey their thoughts and needs. The system begins by teaching a child to give a picture of an item to their “communicate partner” to help express something. Materials don’t need to be expensive (can be downloaded from many sites for free) and can be used in a variety of settings.

This is mentioned in more detail in more detail in issue 25

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Social Stories

Social Stories Apps

Another great tool when helping a child on the spectrum identify feelings and emotions is the use of social stories. Developed in 1991 by Carol Gray, social stories can be used to break down a task or social situation into small and easy-to-understand steps, usually paired with pictures.  According to TouchAutism, a company dedicated to building mobile device apps for children with special needs, children on the spectrum often miss the facial cues people typically rely on to gauge the moods of others or even of themselves. Autism Apps offer tools to provide help children identify feelings or emotions in context and prewritten social stories can be found using an online search.

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From the ability to communicate to the capacity to show emotion, children with autism are uniquely different from one another. Experiment with visual supports to determine which tool(s) works best with your child.

By Amy Tobik

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