Family, Kids & Relationships

8 SEL activities to support children with autism

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Most children begin emotional development from birth by learning to express emotions and read facial expressions. Then they continue to develop empathy and relationship building skills as they grow. Children with autism have a harder time with this development, which means they can have a difficult time understanding and regulating their own emotions. In addition, engaging in social interactions can be complex, as they often work harder to integrate tone of voice, body language, facial expressions, and timing.

As soon as they start kindergarten, children are expected to know how to take turns, share space, share materials, and play collaboratively. Yet skills such as shared attention (focusing on something together), social referencing (using cues from others to know how to behave), mutual engagement (doing things together), and social anticipation (predicting future interactions) can be quite complex for children on the spectrum. 

According to CDC estimates, one in 54 children has been identified with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), with four times more boys affected than girls. Social emotional learning (SEL) can help these children develop an awareness of emotions, build social relationships, and make responsible decisions. With fewer opportunities for social interactions during this pandemic, here are some visual and engaging activities you can try with your child at home.

Reading and Displaying Facial Expressions 

Past studies have shown that children (and adults) with autism have a more difficult time both recognizing facial expressions and displaying expressions to match “social expectations.” The expressions they choose to use instead might not match what they’re actually feeling, or might not express a particular feeling at all. As a result, everyday interactions can be difficult because not everyone will understand what these expressions or lack of expressions mean. 

SEL can help children understand how to recognize facial expressions (for example, whether to pay more attention to certain areas of the face than others) as well as develop the vocabulary to express what they are feeling. 

  • Try watching a movie together without the sound. Point out various facial expressions and ask your child how the character might be feeling. Try identifying the same emotion multiple times by using synonyms. For example, if your child says two characters look happy, help them brainstorm other words for happy such as joyful or calm.
  • While reading a book together, ask your child to point out characters that are feeling certain emotions. Then ask your child to show you their happy face, angry face, etc. You can ask your child, “What makes your angry face different from your happy face?” Use a mirror or take photos so your child can see their expression.

Social Cues and Visual Supports

Anger and fear are two emotions that children with autism have a hard time recognizing even as they grow older. SEL can help children learn more about these emotions, how to express them, and find calming strategies that work for them. Encouraging emotional development should occur naturally in everyday interactions, whether it be at home or school. 

  • Parents can mirror positive emotions so their child can see not only the expression for themselves, but also gain an understanding of empathy. For example, when your child is happy you can mirror this emotion by smiling to help your child associate the expression of smiling with the feeling of happiness.
  • Some research has shown the positive effects of using visual supports to guide emotional development. This is because children with autism often respond better visually than they do by just listening. By using visual supports such as this Visual Supports Toolkit, parents can communicate better with their children about their emotions.
  • Wisdom: The World of Emotions (iOS, Android) features activities specifically designed for teaching children social cues. Some of these activities include identifying emotions through facial expressions, body language, and voice intonations, practicing how to introduce yourself to someone, and how to respond to nonverbal cues. Examples of the nonverbal cues questions:
    • Your friend keeps looking away from you while you are talking, what do you do?
    • You ask your sibling a question and they nod their head, what does this response mean to you?

Emotion Regulation and Mindfulness

Emotional regulation is another social emotional skill that can be very challenging for children with ASD. According to the Child Mind Institute, mindfulness is emerging as a helpful emotional regulation tool for children with special needs such as autism spectrum disorder. In the article, Dr. Amy Saltzman explains that mindfulness studies documented a decrease in anxiety and improvements in attention, and the students “were less emotionally reactive and more able to handle daily challenges and choose their behavior.”

Here are mindful activities parents can start to use with their children at home:

  • Breathing exercises – Taking deep breaths is a simple activity to help children feel calm and grounded. For example, if a child seems to be overwhelmed a parent can guide their child in taking ten deep breaths. Other examples of breathing exercises include placing your hands on your belly or over your lungs to help the child feel the rise and fall of their breath. 

A fun and interactive way for your child to practice breathing is with augmented reality. Augmented reality (AR) can improve attention and focus for kids with autism. The AR feature on Wisdom: The World of Emotions (iOS, Android) helps children interact with the real world in a visually supportive way, increase engagement and curiosity. By participating in these exercises with another individual, children with autism can increase social interaction. Dawn, a mother of a child with autism, shared, “My daughter had difficulties understanding how to exhale deeply. She enjoyed the AR games a lot because they helped her visualize her exhale and now she is able to take deep breaths to feel calmer.”

  • Meditations – Meditations can help kids feel in more control of their body. They’re especially helpful for children who respond well to listening activities. Meditations can also be shared visually with books such as A Handful of Quiet by Thich Nhat Hanh. Recorded guided meditations (found in apps, videos, and podcasts) can be helpful for your child if they’re feeling overwhelmed, unmotivated, angry, or sad.
  • Mindful movements – Mindfulness can also be practiced through movement! Activities such as yoga help children think intentionally about their body movements and will help them feel grounded. Some books for children about mindful movements include I Am Yoga by Susan Verde and You Are a Lion! by Taeeun Yoo. 

Social emotional skills take time and practice to learn, especially for children with ASD. The support you give your child will strengthen their confidence for taking on challenges to learn something new about themselves and others. Visual and interactive activities will help children with autism build their self-awareness, social awareness and build positive relationships. Additionally, this Autism Awareness Month if you’re not familiar with autism spectrum disorder, we hope this inspires you to learn more about understanding and celebrating differences!

Emily is an early childhood educator, currently teaching at a Montessori school in Chicago. She is also a Content Specialist for Better Kids, a social impact venture creating digital and hands-on games that support children's social emotional growth. Emily is finishing her Master's degree in Theology.